What Causes Women to Not Succeed at the Highest Level?

These are the systems you need to spot and call out.

In my days as a burgeoning baby feminist, I started coming across some terms that other folks bandied about without really explaining. “Glass ceiling,” or “heteronormative,” or “structural inequality.”

I didn’t really understand a lot of it, and it took a lot of time and exposure to them to start getting a sense of the nuance behind them. To sum it up for anyone who may be wondering, here’s my experience: the patriarchal “glass structure” is code for when you see men succeeding and women failing, but you can’t quite put your finger on why.

Nobody’s come out and said “I think women are inferior,” but there are a collection of coincidences hard to dismiss. Instances where men consistently do well, and women consistently don’t. Moments where everything seems to be going right, and then the outcome is somehow skewed.

The biological differences between men and women are smaller than you might believe. There’s no genetically coded switch that makes boys better at working or being in command than girls. So naturally, that leads us to conclude that there are societal systems in place which allow and assist men to flourish, while simultaneously setting women up to fail.

Nothing concrete can be seen, but the presence of these glass structures, as societal expectations and fall-backs you can’t see but are nonetheless very present, account for most of these vast differences.

Here are the glass structures of the patriarchy: you can’t see them, but they’re holding us* back.

*NB: these structures apply to all marginalized groups. I’ll be writing specifically about my own experiences as a white woman.

The Glass Ceiling

This one is most commonly known and was the first one I was made familiar with. Defined by The United States Federal Glass Ceiling Commission as “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements,” this basically boils down to when you look at a company and you see that after a certain level of promotions, you just run out of women.

Photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash

At my company, the sex ratio is about 50:50. As a tech company, we’re remarkably good for having lots of female developers.

But if you take a look at our board of directors, it’s a sea of white men. Somehow, in all the key leadership positions, there’s no woman. Every opportunity was offered first to the white men, and then not at all to anyone else.

“Americans see women as emotional and affectionate, men as more aggressive.” — Frank Newport, Gallup Poll

The problem is self-perpetuating. Men at the top see women as weaker, more inferior, and even less courageous than men. So when the time comes to choose their successor, they’re inclined to choose more men. Women receive less mentorship as men choose other men to coach.

The result is a Glass Ceiling. You can’t see why, you can’t perceive the reason, but there’s an undeniable pattern of women topping out at a certain level of management, while men continue to rise.

The Glass Escalator

This one’s a little less-well known. Introduced by Christine L. Williams in 1992, it explains the trend of men doing exceptionally well in female-led industries.

Think about it: as industries, is makeup more for men or women? Clothing? Cooking? Caretaking? Teaching? Yet in all of these female-driven industries, you see all the men — clustered at the top of the totem pole. Even though most of the employees in these fields are women, the leadership is all male.

Anecdotally, for example, most of the big makeup companies you can think of are run by men. L’Oreal, Revlon, Estée Lauder, OPI Nail Polish, and MAC Cosmetics are all run by boys.

But beyond examples, there’s systematic evidence. According to a study done in 2015, only 29% of leadership in makeup companies is female. Fashion is 27%. Only 21% of top chefs are women.

Get back in the kitchen, indeed!

Photo by Gordon Williams on Unsplash

The Glass Escalator is the name for the insidious patterns of promotions in female-driven industries, where when men show up, they are often promoted far quicker and far more easily than the women.

In nursing, for example, white men in particular are often welcomed by their female colleagues as “a response to the fact that professions dominated by women are frequently low in salary and status and that greater numbers of men help improve prestige and pay,” says Professor of Sociology, Adia Harvey Wingfield.

It is important to note here that black men do not receive this welcome due to preconceived notions and stereotypes of black men in care work. White male nurses are often mistaken for doctors; black male nurses are mistaken for janitors.

And in teaching, author Cognard-Black found that “men had a much greater chance of advancing upward into school administrative positions.”

Altogether, research shows that men do far, far better in female-led professions than in male-majority industries, with more promotions, higher starting salaries, and the literal opposite of the Glass Ceiling — they shoot to the top with minimal effort compared to female colleagues.

The Glass Cliff

A while back, some researchers noticed a pattern: shortly before companies failed, a woman was made CEO of the company.

The company then failed.

The Glass Cliff refers to the trend of putting women in leadership roles especially when there is a proportionally higher chance of failure, both in industry and politics.

The term originates from a study done in 2004, by British professors Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam, examining the propensity of companies to fail with women at the helm.

They found that if the company had experienced a significant downturn in the five months prior to the change in leadership, they were much more likely to put women in charge.

So women finally break through the Glass Ceiling, reach the promised but before now unattainable senior leadership positions, only to fail.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

There are a few theories for this. Primarily, it’s possible that women in charge aren’t given support from their colleagues that male leadership gets. In my personal experience, when I’m put in charge of a project at work, my male colleagues drag their feet, reluctant to help me the same way they’d help my male coworker.

One theory postulates that women are seen as more expendable and better used as scapegoats than their male equivalents.

“If the woman succeeds, the company is better off. If she fails, the company is no worse off, she can be blamed, the company gets credit for having been egalitarian and progressive, and can return to its prior practice of appointing men.” — Psychology Professor, Kristin J. Anderson.

It’s also possible that women are more likely to accept riskier job opportunities either because they feel they may not otherwise get them, or that they don’t have access to insider information or support warning them away.

And the ramifications go further than that. When things go wrong, people blame leadership without taking into account extenuating circumstances. And when things go wrong with women in charge, it’s been demonstrated that women actually are less likely to get second chances than when men fail.

Ihit my personal feminist revolution a little late in life. Growing up, a small part of me believed that men were simply biologically better suited to lead than women, and there was so much evidence around me to prove it.

That’s why these glass structures are so dangerous. If you don’t know to look for them, it just looks like women don’t merit leadership positions: just look how many male CEOs there are. Even in traditionally female industries, the CEOs are predominantly men. And when companies generously allow women to lead, they fail.

Knowing the structures in place that keep women down help us dismantle them.

Biology MSc. Psychology nerd. She/her. Get my FREE 5-day Medium Starter Kit to make money writing about what you love: https://zuliewrites.ck.page/3e3d3a8187

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