Glass Ceiling Or Sticky Floor: What Is Holding Women Back In The Workplace?


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If I Had A Hammer...

glass ceiling:
noun: glass ceiling; plural noun: glass ceilings
an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities.
"the first female to break through the glass ceiling in Engineering



It is undeniably true that women are better positioned than they have ever been before in terms of what they are able to achieve both in the corporate arena and as entrepreneurs. Women are in senior positions across all sectors, across all industries. They are board members, politicians, CEOs, influencers. They drive change, and they make new rules. 

But there still aren't enough of them, and they are still held back in many ways, sometimes by others - or often by themselves. 

Women can be their own worst enemies in terms of not knowing their true worth. They are also extremely bad - generally speaking - at supporting each other onwards and upwards. 

They let their stilettos stick to the floor, rather than taking big, long proud strides forward.

And yes, the glass ceiling is still most definitely extant. Women are discriminated against for taking maternity leave. For trying to balance work with a family. For being the primary care giver. And in some cases, simply for being female. 

Why is this still happening, and what can be done to change it? How can we stop our feet from sticking to that carpet - how can we smash that incredibly strong safety glass once and for all?

This book doesn't pretend to have all the answers; but what it does provide is a wealth of information on why we have not come as far as we could, or should, and how we change the game. Some amazing women give their viewpoint on their experiences with that glass, and their way of dealing with it. 

Women have a right to equality through merit in the workplace. So let's work out how to get it. 


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Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

The disappearing female leader isn’t just a diversity issue, it’s a leadership issue for every organisation planning for the future.   

Gender awareness is quite possibly higher than ever before. The question on the tip of the tongue of many, however, is ‘are we doing enough right now?’ 

Are the tangible, long term changes required to effect significant and sustainable change actually in place? Are they being adhered to and constantly being improved, or is it simply a matter of being heard to say the right things at the right time to the right people and pretending to put some measurements in place? 

Is the reality of the current situation telling a different story about the actuality of acceptable levels of gender awareness and diversity?  

There is no doubt that the lack of female leaders now is impacting not only the short term, but in terms of the long term, will have devastating effects. Unless we actively drive change there will be no funnelling of talent. No mentoring. No active sponsoring of younger women – because the senior female leaders simply won’t be there to see these things put in place. Gen Y, and then Gen Z, will have no role models to base business behaviours on. They will look to their peers rather than upwards - and their peers will be equally floundering. 

The lost investment in talent – in smart, savvy, knowledgeable women, who are above all able to make a difference, and ensure that equality and parity is kept and balance is maintained is astonishing – and yet organisations are willing to let this happen and incur the cost to re-recruit versus retain.

There is no doubt that women’s role has changed significantly in the last 50 years from one based around family and the home, to one where it is acceptable to be engaged in paid employment.  Some would argue however, that organisational cultures and structures have failed to keep up with the changing dynamics of society.

Equally, the qualitative commentary and feedback received from many women across age and socio-demographics combined with the never ending stories of discrimination and inequality do raise questions about what is really happening.  

So what is really holding women back in the workplace?

During difficult and challenging times, times of unprecedented change and evolution, accessing and utilising the entire available workforce has become a business imperative.  David Gonski states that “currently, we [Australia] have both one of the world’s lowest rates of educated women participating in the workforce and one of the world’s highest rates of female education. In other words, we are getting the world’s worst return on the multi-billion dollar investment we make in female education every year.’ 

The corporate, financial, economic and social benefits of engaging our complete working population, men and women, is well documented. Research shows us that gender-balanced organisations report increased teamwork and improved consumer insights (#).  The Catalyst Report (2004) illustrated improved corporate performance with a gender balanced workplace and almost ten years later a 2013 UK report on the Business Case For Equality And Diversity (1) found evidence to support the economic realities of gender diversity.  This latter report concludes that businesses actively supporting and engaging a culture of diversity and equality deliver a positive impact on business performance, risk assessment and decision making, witness improved company culture and overall increased staff retention.  The 2013 Male Champions Of Change Report states, Tapping into the full talent pool will give us a diversity advantage, creating commercial, societal and economic value”.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, a company founded in 1957, is an internationally recognised brand with more than 6,500 locations in the US, Canada, the UK  and throughout Europe.  Strong leadership and entrepreneurial spirit has seen the continued growth of this organisation and what really shines is their commitment to gender diversity as a top business priority and fundamental part of creating a culture of success.  The UK arm of Enterprise Rent-A-Car’s  (XX) commitment to diversity included initiatives such as:

  • launching a scheme to keep new parents in touch with business developments whilst on maternity leave;
  • providing top quality mentoring and sponsorship opportunities for promising female talent;
  • developing a Leadership Development Pilot Group designed to help women achieve promotion to more senior roles;
  • launching a maternity coaching project.

According to the Company’s published results, these initiatives contributed to a 3% increase in the number of women in the UK workforce to 37%, 89% of women returning from maternity leave and over 50 female employees being mentored by senior directors, with a 9% promotion rate to senior roles. 

Whilst there is a growing body of evidence to support the benefits of a more gender diverse organisation, the ‘gender jaws’ diagram in Fig xx shows the rapid drop-off in women’s representation in the workforce.  Women continue to remain underrepresented in management and leadership roles.

  • While women are overrepresented in tertiary education, they still remain under-represented in senior roles in virtually every professional sphere (2)
  • Men still heavily populate the top of our corporate world with women holding just 3% of Fortune 500 CEO positions
  • The latest percentage of women on ASX 200 boards is 17.1% (13 December 2013) and whilst we have seen this increasing year on year for the last three years we still have a long way to go with 44 boards in the ASX 200 still not having female representation (3)
  • The labour force participation rate for women is 58.7%, and for men is 71.4%.(4)
  • On average, women working full-time earn 17.5% less than men working full-time.(4)
  • Female graduate salaries are 90.9% of male graduate salaries.(4)
  • Average superannuation payments for women are 42.1% less than men.(4)
  • A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in late 2012 of 357,500 working women with a child under two revealed 18.8 per cent faced discrimination in the workplace and 29.3 per cent left the workforce permanently while pregnant or after having their child.
  • Of those who did return to work, one in four said it was to ‘keep their employers happy’. To save costs, grandparents were the preferred child minding option for 87,900 parents (42.8 per cent) compared to 57,700 (28.1 per cent) who utilised long day care.  The research showed 31,200 women felt they received negative comments from their manager or colleagues, 22,900 said they missed out on a promotion, 10,100 reported their duties were changed without consultation, 4,500 were demoted and 1,200 said their hours were changed without consultation.


Figure 8. ‘Gender Jaws’ – Representation in ASX 200 companies

Percent women 

  • •    University graduates – 62 per cent
  • •    Entry-level professionals – 45 per cent
  • •    Executive committee – 10 per cent
  • •    Executive committee (line roles) – 6 per cent
  • •    CEO – 4 per cent

Percent men 

  • •    University graduates – 38 per cent
  • •    Entry-level professionals – 55 per cent
  • •    Executive committee – 90 per cent
  • •    Executive committee (line roles) – 94 per cent
  • •    CEO – 96 per cent

Reference: McKinsey, Women Matter: An Asian Perspective (June 2012); WGEA, 2012 Australian Census of Women in Leadership; Graduate Careers Australia, Australian Graduate Survey 2012.


Increasing numbers of women are leaving the workplace.

Increasing numbers of women are leaving traditional corporate roles to either follow their partner’s careers, remain at home looking after children or to set up their own entrepreneurial venture.  The reasons cited are many;

  • The infamous glass ceiling is often criticised for not allowing or facilitating the movement of our female leaders to the upper echelons of management and business;
  • The pay gap continues to infuriate many with full time women on average earning 17.5% less than men working full-time
  • The lack of available high quality childcare and associated high costs often mean returning to work is not viable economically with women continuing to be the primary care-givers 
  • A severe lack of meaningful flexible work options available.  The traditional work day of 9a.m. - 5p.m. assumes  there is someone permanently at home and the four weeks annual leave does not align with the twelve weeks (and more) of school holidays should children be part of the family equation.
  • Unconscious bias, or the stereotyping of genders resulting in influencing decisions in a manner of which we are unaware, is often cited as a major contributor to gender bias and career progression.  As human beings we are naturally attracted to like-minded people, we recruit like-minded people, those that behave like us, are like us, have the same story and journey as us.   We  may say we are making decisions based on merit when in actual fact the unconscious stereotyping is a major contributor to the decisions made.  Unconscious bias is no doubt creating barriers to female accessibility to roles and promotions.   McKinsey and Company spoke to the invisible barriers that continue to exist (xxx) and said  “The last generation of workplace innovations - policies to support women with young children, networks to help women navigate their careers, formal sponsorship programmes to ensure personal development - broke down structural barriers holding women back  The next frontier is rolling invisible barriers: mindsets widely held by managers, men and women alike that are rarely acknowledges but block the way” XXXX

I am incredibly supportive and thankful for those male champions of change that support diversity, stand up for women by using their voices and actively question and disrupt the status quo.  Fundamentally, in my mind, diversity is a society issue and one that needs to be resolved collaboratively, men and women working together to drive change.  However, every month, I personally hear stories of frustration and concern from talented, senior business women about their current work, way in which thy are being treated and their own career prospects.  At the other end of the spectrum, younger women, the potential future leaders, are questioning their own career choices and paths, the promotional opportunities available to them and  their future place in the workforce and/or in the home. They are actively seeking out the rapunzels of the workplace as mentors and sponsors, asking for advice and guidance about their career and future prospects.

There is a movement of networking organisations not only here in Australia but also overseas as increasing numbers of women connect and seek out like-minded women to share ideas and solutions, to seek out career and business contacts, to find those infamous mentors that will support them in their own personal growth and success journeys.  

And whilst the list of reasons for leaving a corporate job are ongoing and relentless, it has to be acknowledged that many organisations are actively effecting change from within.  One only has to read the case studies from the Male Champions Of Change 2013 report “Accelerating the advancement of women in leadership:

Listening, Learning, Leading” to see evidence of change and diversity initiatives in some of our leading high profile organisations such as Deloitte, KPMG, Telstra and IBM.

This report is showing that some organisations have identified the necessity to work towards a more balanced workplace.  They  are actively developing strategies to retain talent, intellectual property, thought leadership and knowledge within their organisations.  They are actively working on renewed policies and procedures and training and development programs to support women in leadership.  Some organisations are investing increasing amounts of money establishing internal women’s networking groups to actively encourage mentoring and sponsorship.  Ultimately, the initiatives and changes in place by the referenced organisations are about the effective use of resources now and in to the future, enabling organisations to scale, leverage and be competitive in to the future - ultimately future proofing business.

The ripple effect of the disappearing female leader is that  leadership is currently devoid of perspective.  Research continually shows that by adding women’s voices, opinions and ideas to the mix of high level corporate decision making will create more balanced thinking and the business insight that is needed to think differently, to innovate and to drive continued growth and business success.  

Improved diversity makes sense on so many levels:

  • The positive impact on corporate culture
  • The positive impact on the cost of employee recruitment 
  • The positive impact on society and family dynamics
  • The positive impact on corporate profitability
  • The positive impact on improving business insight and innovation
  • The positive impact on the available talent pool

As Brian Hartzer, Westpac’s Chief Executive, Australian Financial Services says, “To me, productivity is really about three things: being more innovative, helping more people get into and stay in the workforce and, most of all, it’s about helping people achieve their full potential. What does that have to do with gender equity? Well, everything. We know innovation comes with diversity of thinking. We know diversity in executive teams and in the boardroom helps drive better financial results. We know the rise in female employment has boosted Australia’s economy by 22% per cent since 1974. And we know closing the gap between male and female employment rates would boost GDP by up to 13%. That’s why it makes economic sense for Australia.”

So what is the problem?  What is really stopping women from advancing in the work place.

‘Men who have a track record of hiring, developing and advancing women are actually quite rare. We celebrate them as exceptional. If we want more women in our senior ranks, such leaders should be the norm in our businesses rather than the exception. Let’s end the lottery and unlock the potential of all our people.’ Mike Smith, ANZ

There is much debate in the media backing up the infamous glass ceiling, a term found in the Wall Street Journal as early as the 1980’s.  A term that alludes to the invisible barrier preventing women from reaching ultimate success in the corporate world as being the primary barrier to women’s advancement in the corporate world. That invisible yet ever present checkpoint which, statistically, has been proven to be definitely present; but of course, as we all know, glass is made to be broken – or more satisfyingly, shattered.  As Fig xxx illustrates, I think it is often organisations that are limited in their diversity thinking, who adopt a more traditional / male dominated organisational culture that suffer from the glass ceiling phenomena.   These organisations may have an actively engaged female workforce,  they may even statistically have  good numbers of women at entry level jobs / graduate jobs, but the closed door culture and lack of commitment to women progressing through the organisation often results in reduced promotional opportunities or family friendly working conditions.  The result?  Women becoming frustrated and leave.

But what about the sticky floor?  

Do women in fact hold themselves – or ourselves – back from career growth when an organisation is actively opening the door to promotions, growth through the organisation and training opportunities.  

Is it our own limiting beliefs as women of really understanding and believing what we are truly capable of?  

Is it a lack of willingness to simply go for it or as Sheryl Sandberg states “lean in”?

Are we actively playing the game?

Or does the willingness exist but the environment in which we are currently working prevent the progress that is needed form a diversity perspective?

Empowerment and engagement initiatives are no doubt needed to add new perspectives to organisations, to future proof them for the increased competitiveness of the market for sales, profits and people.

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Women Who Commit To Success: Christina Guidotti

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Change Is A Constant

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Don't Call Me Darling: Kate Stone

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Status Quo Is The Enemy

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The Right To Dream: Kylie Green

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Getting Engaged

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Sticky Floors Require Trainers, Not High Heels!: Lizzy Renkert

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High Society

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If Your Stilettos Are Sticky, Set Them Free... And Get A New Pair!: Neen James

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Clearing The Glass: A Work In Progress

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The Courage To Shatter The Glass Forever: Mandy Holloway

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Looking Through The Glass Ceiling From The Eyes of A Gen Y: Sarah Lui

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The Buck Stops Here - Yes, HERE.

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Lead From Within - 7 Acts Of Courage For Women: Margie Warrell

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