News Column

Women Debate Whether Glass Ceiling Still Exists

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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 Does the glass ceiling still exist, or is it an outdated metaphor that fails to acknowledge the progress women have made?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."

Good has calculated that if things continue at their current rates, it will take 233 years before there are equal numbers of men and women CEOs in the Fortune 500. After Avon Products' Andrea Jung steps down as CEO this year, the Fortune 500 will have just 17 women CEOs.

With these kinds of statistics, it's no surprise that the glass ceiling metaphor hasn't disappeared. But Carli, the Wellesley professor, said the glass ceiling wrongly implies that women face a single, unknown obstacle at the pinnacle of their careers. Once the ceiling is shattered, the metaphor suggests, the path lies open for all women.

A labyrinth, on the other hand, acknowledges that there are many different paths to the top, and with persistence and hard work many women can make it through, Carli said. Instead of smashing the ceiling, the goal is to break down the labyrinth's high walls so that women emerge with the same opportunity that men do: a road with hills and valleys.

"Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one's progress and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead," Carli and Alice Eagly, a Northwestern University professor, wrote in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article.

To ensure that women don't get stuck in the labyrinth or hit the glass ceiling, experts say several things must happen. For starters, companies need to set up metrics to ensure that qualified women get promotions to top jobs. Doing this will not only help women but also improve companies' bottom lines, studies have shown.

Women also need to step up by changing the way they pursue their careers, said Good of Little PINK Book. She urges women to document their successes, build relationships with key corporate leaders and ask for the pay raises and jobs they want.

"Women are not asking for the opportunities," Good said. "Be part of the conversation."

In the past three years, Catalyst has seen a growing number of CEOs sponsor female executives by recommending them for key assignments, making sure their achievements are noticed by other senior executives, providing career guidance and taking other steps to ensure that women don't get overlooked for promotions.

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MARY BARRA THRIVES AT GM:

It's been a little more than a year since Mary Barra took on one of the most important jobs at General Motors: senior vice president for global product development.

Barra, 50, is the first woman in the auto industry to oversee the design and engineering of new cars and trucks. She is also one of three women on GM's 20-member executive committee.

"The year has flown by," Barra said. "I have told (CEO) Dan Akerson that I think I got the best job in the company."

She should know. Barra has held a number of positions in her 32-year career at the automaker, from the manager of its Hamtramck assembly plant to vice president of global manufacturing engineering and, most recently, vice president of global human resources. She began working at GM as a General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) co-op student in its former Pontiac division at 18.

Ask Barra if she has faced any career obstacles and she will tell you, "No." She also doesn't believe being a woman has given her any special advantages.

"It's about knowing your business and working hard," said Barra, who has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and an MBA. "I don't look at it as a gender issue."

She advises women who do encounter roadblocks in their jobs to "either change that or move on. The worst thing in the world is to stay in that position. Life's too short."

A mother of two, Barra shares household responsibilities with her husband, who also works; they also have other help. Barra is usually traveling somewhere in the world one week every month.

"Some days I do it well," Barra said of juggling work and family. "Some days I don't do it as well as I should."

She hopes that one day there will be more women in jobs like hers.

"It starts with attracting young women in junior and senior high school to the math and sciences," she said.