Glass ceilings, sticky floors and mid-level bottlenecks

Published: 12/12/2013

Alison Konrad, Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management

Volume 16, Number 9
September 2010

Alison Konrad finds that women and visible minorities are less likely to be promoted than white men.

When Hillary Clinton conceded defeat in her presidential campaign, she told her supporters: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest glass ceiling, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”

The glass ceiling is a phrase that came into being about 20 years ago to describe an invisible barrier that prevented women from getting to the top. Since then it seems that little progress has been made. After all, only 2 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, and women make up only 15 percent of their boards.

With statistics like these, it’s not surprising for people to think that women experience the most bias when they go for the top jobs. New research from Ivey Professor Alison Konrad shows that this is not the case. Women tend to have more difficulty getting promotions at lower and middle levels of the organization than at the highest echelons. The glass ceiling still exists, but not for women. It acts as a barrier to the promotion of visible minority men.

Konrad is the Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management. Her research focuses on gender and diversity in organizations. In a recent study published in the journal Industrial Relations, she and co-author Margaret Yap, Assistant Professor at Ted Rogers School of Management of Ryerson University, took a fresh look at whether women and visible minorities face discrimination in getting promoted.

To conduct the study, Konrad and Yap looked at a large Canadian company in the information and communications technology sector. They tracked the promotions of 22,338 non-unionized employees over a period of five years. The employees were divided into four categories: white women, white men, visible minority women, and visible minority men. The research design rigorously controlled for other factors that might have an effect on promotion decisions.

When Konrad looked at the company as a whole, she found that white men were more likely to be promoted than white women, visible minority women, and visible minority men. She then divided the company into three broad levels: the sticky floor, the mid-level bottleneck, and the glass ceiling.

The sticky floor consisted of the bottom layers of the organization, where jobs were low paying and few employees had a university education. Konrad found that women tended to be held back here. She found that white men and visible minority men had a clear promotion advantage over white women and visible minority women. “At the lowest levels it’s a man’s world,” she says.

The “mid-level bottleneck” included the middle three layers of the firm. Half of the employees were university educated, and many of them hoped to move to upper management. At this level she found that white men had a clear promotion advantage over white women, visible minority women, and visible minority men.

At the highest level of the organization, the glass ceiling, Konrad found that white women and visible minority women were treated the same as white men. She did find, however, that the glass ceiling was real for visible minority men. Their chances of promotion at this level were significantly less than the other groups.

Konrad’s study is unique in identifying the mid-level bottleneck, where the careers of many women get stalled. This helps to explain the lack of women in senior management, she says. “Women get selected out at this middle level because they’re not promoted as quickly. Those who do advance are so good that they sail through the promotion process at the highest levels.”

Some people suggest that women are not promoted as often as white men because they tend to be more focused on family and less willing to put in the long hours. Konrad’s research does not rule this out, but she raises the question: “Do we want people who put their careers before their families to be running our world? Or do we want top decision-makers to place value on being present for the important people in their lives?”

Although the glass ceiling does not appear to be an obstacle to women, it clearly is for visible minority men. Existing research shows that people tend to view white men as the ones most competent to be leaders. Visible minority men are often perceived as not having the people skills, or more suited for technical occupations. “These biases and stereotypes play out in other studies,” says Konrad, “and unfortunately we see it again in ours.”

Most firms today acknowledge that having a diverse group of decision makers can help a business be more competitive and make better decisions. Yet Konrad’s study clearly shows that many people continue to face barriers to promotion because of gender and race.

Konrad stresses that individuals in a firm can do little on their own to embrace diversity without systems and processes in place. “We’re never going to change what happens at all levels until we create reward allocation and promotion systems that value the different contributions and viewpoints of everyone,” she says. “We have to look at those system structures and change them – if we’re going to finish the job.”