Mary Barra made history last year when she became the first woman to lead the development of new cars and trucks at General Motors, the world's largest automaker. In January, Virginia Rometty took over as CEO of IBM, the first woman to head the technology giant in its 101-year history.
These milestones in male-dominated industries are raising new questions about women's advancement in the workplace. Does the glass ceiling still exist, or is it an outdated metaphor that fails to acknowledge the progress women have made?
Nearly three decades after the introduction of the glass ceiling metaphor, many women say the glass ceiling is very much intact, pointing to data that show women last year held just 14 percent of all executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies. But others disagree, citing advances made by women in recent years. And some contend that the glass ceiling should be replaced by a different metaphor.
When asked if a glass ceiling still exists for women, Barra, GM's senior vice president of global product development, said, "I don't think so. I've never seen it or felt it in my career."
She acknowledged the small percentage of women in top executive positions but said she expects the situation will improve, noting that "it's just a matter of time."
Linda Carli, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and an expert on gender discrimination, sees things differently. She said women still face major workplace hurdles, but she wouldn't describe them as a glass ceiling. She thinks a labyrinth is a better metaphor.
"There are women getting to very high places, and yet the rest of us are still floundering," Carli said.
No matter where you stand on the issue of a glass ceiling, there's no denying that women are underrepresented in the top echelons of corporate America, and they continue to earn less money than men.
Though women make up nearly half the workforce, they accounted for only 7.5 percent of the top-earning executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies last year, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research organization that seeks to expand business opportunities for women. It also found that women held only 16 percent of board seats at these large companies. And more than a quarter of the Fortune 500 had no female executive officers.
Women also continue to lag behind men when it comes to pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in 2010 earned 81 percent of the median weekly earnings of their male counterparts.
Last fall, Catherine Weinberger, an economist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, published research showing that women at the top of corporate ladders see their salaries flatten while their male counterparts' earnings keep rising.
Experts blame a number of factors for the pay disparity and the small numbers of women in executive suites and boardrooms. The list includes discrimination, less access to informal corporate networks, inequities in family responsibilities, gender stereotypes and a lack of negotiating skills when it comes to pay and promotions.
The deep recession hasn't helped women either. In a 2008 study, Catalyst found that women in senior management positions were three times more likely to lose their jobs than men in similar positions.
"The number of women in top leadership roles has been essentially static over the last few years," said Cynthia Good, CEO of Little PINK Book, which sends out emails about women's career issues to 80,000 people every business day. "It continues to be a boys' club."
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