The glass ceiling 40 years on: an interview with Marilyn Loden


The term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined 40 years ago. In the intervening decades, has much changed for women in work? Roisin Woolnough caught up with Marilyn Loden, who coined the phrase, to find out. 

It’s 40 years since Marilyn Loden coined the phrase ‘the glass ceiling’. At the time, she had no idea the impact the phrase would have, and she certainly didn’t expect to still be talking about the glass ceiling all these years later. But she still is because the glass ceiling is most definitely still there. “While there are many many more opportunities for women today than there were 40 years ago, it hasn’t got that much better for women. If you look at the really big jobs in the global community, it’s not even 20%.”

Why is it that it’s still so much harder for women to land the top jobs than it is for men, despite all that we now know about the glass ceiling effect? Why do so many women’s careers plateau at a certain level? “It’s not a popular sentiment to say that corporate culture and institutional bias are responsible, but I believe it’s true,” says Loden. “The issues are much deeper than I thought and you don’t see change institutions and norms overnight. The good news is that we are seeing a real change in the environment and culture in organisations.”

Loden has made smashing through the glass ceiling her life’s work. She consults a whole range of institutions in the US – companies, government agencies, universities, law firms and the military – on how to improve diversity in the workplace by making organisational cultures more inclusive.

For her, it all started when she was an HR manager at New Yorker Telephone, part of AT&T, and she was tasked with establishing why only 80 of the 12,000 middle and upper level managers were female. Also, the company was being constantly sued by women, particularly over unequal pay. Loden’s employers wanted some answers. “There was lots to investigate. I did a lot of research and collected a lot of data, but after all my interviewing and looking at performance records, I couldn’t see any reason why women were being held back.”

Blame game
It was at the Women’s Action Alliance Conference in May 1978 that Loden coined the now famous phrase. “I was put on a panel called Mirror Mirror on the Wall and the negative self images of women was the topic. Each person talked at length about problems of lack of confidence and assertiveness. I was appalled. It seemed that we were blaming the women for their lack of mobility.” Loden thought something much bigger, more powerful but less visible than that was at play and it was at that moment that the phrase ‘the glass ceiling’ came to her. The concept instantly resonated with the people in the audience, many of whom spoke about the obstacles they faced at work and how their careers were not progressing as they had expected. “I felt I was onto something.”

When Loden presented her findings to her company, she found that her managers were not willing to hear what she had to say, an attitude that Loden thinks prevails in many organisations around the world. “There are still places today where people are more comfortable suggesting that it’s the fault of women. But women are just as capable and ambitious as men. Lots of people out there say it’s because women don’t want to make sacrifices. I really don’t see that. There are women who are ready and willing.”

The real problem, as Loden sees it, is that men in senior leadership positions are not ready and willing to get to know their female employees properly. Why? Because they are afraid to form strong personal ties with women in case their behaviour is misconstrued. As a result, those women miss out on informal networking and aren’t able to build relationships with their peers and more senior figures in the same way that men do. And it’s those networks and relationships that open doors and lead to career enhancing opportunities, particularly at a more senior level. “Lots of men have this fear that their intentions and actions will be mis-read. They don’t want to get too close to women. I have spoken to male execs who say that, but it’s off the record.”

Insidious behaviour
It’s this kind of insidious behaviour that really perpetuates the glass ceiling effect. It’s barely visible, hard to identify and often unconscious. To overcome it, Loden says organisations need to consciously promote women. They need to look for the potential high fliers, promote them, stretch them, give them visibility, bolster their networks… In organisations where women aren’t making it through to senior leadership, men need to do something about the situation. “Women need sponsorship,” says Loden. “There is an obligation on men in leadership today to get to know the women around them. They need to have informal relationships with them. Men are afraid to take women for lunch, for example, concerned about their image and what people might think, but men have to get over that.”

Male leaders need to have constructive, meaningful conversations with the women in their team about what their ambitions are and how to realise them. And they mustn’t shy away from difficult conversations for fear it will come back at them. If it’s critical, constructive feedback that a woman needs to hear, then Loden says men have to give it to them. “Lots of time male bosses are afraid to do that because they don’t want people to think they are sexist. Men have to get over that too. Women need to hear the truth, the good stuff and the not so good stuff.”

When it comes to succession planning, Loden says the lists drawn up by organisations speak volumes. Invariably, it’s a list of men. “So many companies say: “Here is our succession plan. We wish we had more women on it”. They need to stop wishing and make it happen.”

As always, it comes down to organisational cultures. We are still talking about the glass ceiling because organisational cultures allow it to exist. Loden wants to see organisations really commit to improving the opportunities available to women – not just tinkering around the edges with initiatives such as Lean In circles. “There’s a long way to go from Lean In circles to having gender balance on corporate boards. It’s not doing much to get women promoted. It’s going to take companies coming to term with the fact that there are some gender biases that are so embedded that it’s like breathing the air.”

Look at the data
In the US, twice as many women as men leave paid employment to set up their own business. The conventional view is that women are doing it because they want to and in order to spend more time with their children. Loden thinks that’s companies letting themselves off the hook and that women often leave employment mid-career because their careers have stalled – they have hit the glass ceiling. “Institutions need to take this more seriously and look at the numbers and the trends. The comfortable excuse is that it’s because they want to spend more time with their family and as long as people have this comfortable rationale, it won’t change.

Sexual harassment is another major problem. It’s on everyone’s radar at the moment because of the MeToo movement, so if there was ever a time to address sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s now. “In some industries it’s incredible how much of it still goes on. A lot of male execs can’t fathom that it’s happening and don’t appreciate what it’s like to work with a sexual predator. They have to be more vigilant.

Loden says she knows so many women who have left their job because of sexual predators and as she says, “unplanned moves really set people back”. To tackle this, Loden says organisations need to have a zero tolerance policy on harassment and they need to keep talking about it and keep reinforcing the message that it’s not okay and any instances will be taken seriously and dealt with.

It comes back to culture. Despite Me Too and all the diversity initiatives companies invest in, many organisations are still maintaining a macho culture. “Tech and investment banking, for instance,” says Loden. “These are both places where for too long there has been a nonchalance about treating women with respect. In some organisations culture is sacrosanct. They don’t want to change it and that is holding women and other groups back. They have to do more on this.”

Organisations need to hold employees accountable for their behaviour. But more than that – employees also need to know that they can and should call it out when they see men behaving towards women in a way that is not acceptable. It’s what’s known as bystander intervention. “There should be no bystanders,” says Loden. “If you see it, you have an obligation to do something.”

We all have a responsibility, individually and collectively, to overcome the glass ceiling. Women, men, line managers, senior leaders…. What Loden doesn’t want is for us to still be talking about the glass ceiling in another 40 years’ time. Let’s hope it’s not the case.


About Author

Leave A Reply