Seeing through the glass ceiling

You are here

Seeing through the glass ceiling

Do women favor structural or meritocratic explanations for how they reach corporate success?

by Alison Wynn on Monday, November 5, 2012 - 1:54pm

Female CEOs and executivesFrom Marissa Mayer’s rise to top dog at Yahoo! to Sheryl Sandberg’s closely-watched leadership at Facebook, women tech executives create quite a stir in Silicon Valley. For some, the rise of a female leader – especially in a male-dominated field – seems to tip the scale in favor equality. Others worry that these superstar women make the glass ceiling seem more impenetrable to those with fewer resources or connections.

But do women who break through the metaphorical barrier actually see the glass ceilings so often documented in social science research? Or are these glass ceilings somehow invisible to them? It turns out the answers to these questions are more complicated than you might think. They also have far-reaching consequences: high-achieving women’s beliefs about glass ceilings can affect whether they help to implement policies that bolster up-and-coming women’s success.

To better understand the issues at play, sociologists Erin Cech (Rice University) and Mary Blair-Loy (University of California San Diego) conducted a research study to examine which factors impact women leaders’ perceptions of the glass ceiling.

The researchers found that work and family factors affect whether women recognize glass ceilings. Women who are most likely to encounter powerful barriers due to their work and family circumstances (long hours, being the family breadwinner, having young children) are also most likely to recognize how structural factors affect their own and other women’s success. In other words, these women are more likely to see the glass ceiling.

Women who are most likely to encounter powerful barriers due to their work and family circumstances are also most likely to recognize how structural factors affect their own and other women’s success.

In contrast, the most successful women, and women with strong connections to certain institutions such as graduate business school, are more likely to believe that individual actions drive success. Put differently, these women do not see the glass ceiling. 

The implications of Cech and Blair-Loy’s research extend beyond women’s views of the glass ceiling and could implicate how work is designed in the future. Whether leaders (men and women) recognize the glass ceiling – and whether they believe that organizational or individual factors led to success – may affect how these leaders design future organizational structures and promotion opportunities for upcoming generations of women. 

Structure or merit? Contrasting explanations of gender inequality 

Cech and Blair-Loy studied members of ISIS (pseudonym), a nonprofit professional association for women in science, technology, and allied fields. ISIS women have achieved substantial career success and work within a competitive region of California. The study sought to uncover if differences in work or family situations impact whether women see inequality more as a result of the organization (structural reasons) or as a result of individual efforts (meritocratic explanations).

Structural explanations are the explanations most often supported by sociological research.

Rather than focusing on the traits of any single woman, structural explanations point to larger cultural and institutional factors outside the individual. For example, structural explanations would point to the role social networks play in restricting women’s access to valued resources such as advancement opportunities, rather than focusing on whether an individual woman takes advantage of those networks.

Women constitute 47% of the labor force, 1/3 of all MBA degrees, and only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs. In 48% of Fortune 1000 companies, there are no women executives at all

Structural explanations also consider stereotypes about women’s competence. For example, research on stereotypes has shown that if a woman is personally likable, she is often believed to be a less competent leader. Likewise, if she is viewed as competent, she is seen as unlikeable. Men do not experience the same tradeoff. Because of gender stereotypes, organizational leaders may devalue women’s contributions or penalize their assertiveness. As a result, women often face higher standards and penalties than equally-qualified men do.

Meritocratic explanations tend to be the dominant explanations of differences in success in American culture.

These explanations focus on individual merit – or lack thereof – instead of considering structural barriers. According to Cech, meritocratic explanations are “the bread and butter of the American dream, that anybody can achieve anything as long as they work hard enough and have enough drive.”

Meritocratic explanations assume that individual talent and effort bring proportional rewards, such as pay and promotion. These explanations assume that people who work hard and possess enough innate ability can reach the highest levels of success. According to this logic, if women have not achieved as highly as men, it's because women lack sufficient education, experience, or desire to reach the top.

High-achieving women have reasons to support both types of explanations, structural and meritocratic. On the one hand, successful women may experience the types of structural barriers sociologists write about. They face stereotypes in their day-to-day lives, struggle to form viable networking relationships, and encounter resistance when demonstrating leadership.

On the other hand, high-achieving women are heavily invested in their institutions. They want to believe the system in which they succeeded is fair. “Not all women executives see the glass ceiling even though they very may well have experienced it,” Cech explains. To view their own success as legitimate, they recognize their own hard work, drive, and smart choices as the secrets of their success.

“...If I am working 85 hours a week, and my male colleague is working 80 hours a week, and he is earning 20 percent more than I do, I’m going to start to question whether the advancement system that I am in is fair.”

The effects of work and family on explanations of inequality

So which is it? Do these women favor structural or meritocratic explanations? Cech and Blair-Loy uncovered a complex reality.

Structural explanations are most common among women who experience day-to-day situations that challenge the assumption that “individual effort drives success.” In the absence of these specific experiences, women favor meritocratic explanations.

40% of high-achieving women sampled favor meritocratic explanations for success. 60% of the sample favor structural explanations for success

Cech and Blair-Loy learned that women’s family roles impact whether they recognize barriers to their success. Women who work more hours, serve as primary breadwinners in their families, or have young children are more likely to perceive the glass ceiling. Cech and Blair-Loy hypothesize that such women encounter visible and persistent barriers that activate their awareness of structural causes of inequality. Thus, 60 percent of the respondents in the study favored structural explanations.

For example, women may see their promotion opportunities dwindle once they have a young child, and they may struggle to counter bosses’ and coworkers’ stereotypes that they are less committed to their work.

“If I am working 85 hours a week, and my male colleague is working 80 hours a week, and he is earning 20 percent more than I do, I’m going to start to question whether the advancement system that I am in is fair,” Cech said. When people’s daily experiences challenge the legitimacy of meritocratic explanations, they begin to look for alternative ways to account for their realities, such as structural explanations.

Some appear immune to seeing the glass ceiling

In contrast, other women executives seem almost immune to seeing the glass ceiling. Cech and Blair-Loy found that women with advanced business degrees, married women, and women in one of the top two positions in their companies prefer meritocratic explanations of gender inequality. In all, 40 percent of the sample favored meritocratic explanations.

Not surprisingly, the prevailing ideology in most business schools is a potent belief in meritocracy – that hard work is the key to success. Women embedded in these institutions may feel compelled to align themselves with those ideals rather than emphasizing the barriers they face.

More than 26 percent of the sample believed that women’s own lack of individual motivation is the number one factor holding them back from advancement to corporate leadership. “Over a quarter of these respondents blamed women themselves, [assuming] that they are overly committed to their families, or have no desire, or there is nothing holding them back,” Cech explained. Thus a substantial percentage of high-achieving technical women attribute gender inequality to women’s own inadequacies rather than cultural or organizational obstacles.

To complicate matters, certain factors – such as the effect of marriage – apply primarily among white respondents. For African American, Latina, and Asian American respondents, being married increases the likelihood of choosing a structural (rather than meritocratic) explanation. Cech and Blair-Loy posit that if minority women marry minority men, who are themselves more likely than white men to encounter structural discrimination, then women of color may be more likely to recognize structural inequalities. 

What these findings mean for the future of gender equality

Cracking the glass ceilingWomen at the top, especially women in male-dominated fields, often overcame substantial barriers to get where they are today. To succeed, they had to push beyond structural barriers. This success strategy can include ignoring the barriers and focusing instead on individual effort.

In this sense, the very skill that enabled them to succeed may be the reason they are not the first in line to implement new policies that help other women. “By accepting the legitimacy of the system [of advancement to corporate leadership],” Cech and Blair-Loy’s research contends, “they may contribute to the reproduction of the very glass ceilings they have cracked.”

However, rather than blame these high-achieving women, we should seek to educate them – and their male colleagues – on the ways structural barriers create gender inequality. “One of the take-home policy messages of this [study] is that we can’t assume that anybody understands the basis of inequality,” Cech said. “It has to be something that people are taught to see and understand, or else they [may] behave in a way that reproduces that very structure.”

 “Not all women executives see the glass ceiling even though they very may well have experienced it.”

Policymakers must actively work to raise awareness about the drivers of inequality, explains Cech. Women at the top are in great position to create new policies, and she contends that we must equip them, as well as male leaders, with an understanding of how organizations create obstacles for workers. We must enlist their help in creating policies that enable workers to break through enduring glass ceilings. 


photo of Erin CechErin Cech is a former postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and is currently an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. Cech’s research examines the cultural mechanisms of inequality reproduction—specifically, how inequality is reproduced through processes that are not overtly discriminatory or coercive, but rather those that are built into seemingly innocuous cultural beliefs and practices.

photo Mary Blair-LoyMary Blair-Loy is an associate professor and the Director of Graduate Studies & Founding Director at the Center for Research on Gender in the Professions at the University of California San Diego. She uses multiple methods to study gender, the economy, work, and family. Blair-Loy explicitly analyzes broadly shared, cultural models of a worthwhile life, such as the work devotion schema and the family devotion schema. These cultural schemas help shape workplace and family structures. She is a member of the Clayman Institute Redesigning and Redefining Work Project. 

photo Alison WynnAlison Wynn is a PhD candidate in sociology at Stanford and a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team