Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Strategies for Empowering Women in Leadership

Megan Stacy Deane

Posted: February 1, 2024

Table of Contents

Thanks to the unstoppable work of fearless female leaders across the globe, the notorious glass ceiling has cracked. But it hasn’t shattered entirely, and more work is required before this proverbial gender barrier breaks down, giving women free access to the highest levels of the corporate hierarchy. 

Experts agree that eliminating the glass ceiling is more accessible than trying to jump over the ‘broken rung’ — when women aren’t promoted from entry-level positions to the echelons of management at the same rate as men — because the pipeline to the top is smaller. However, doing so requires sustained and collective effort from individuals, companies, and the government.

With the spotlight on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), and gender equality as business priorities this year, we take a fresh look at the glass ceiling within a global and local context, how gender bias and stereotyping plays into it, and what we can all do to level the playing field. 

The Glass Ceiling: Where it all started

The phrase “glass ceiling” was coined in 1987 by HR practitioner Marilyn Loden, who spoke at a Women’s Exposition in New York about gender inequalities at work. Since its inception, the metaphor has been widely used when referring to the invisible barriers that prevent women (and minorities) from rising to senior-level positions in an organisation. 

Loden regarded the barriers as primarily cultural instead of personal. In a recent interview, she said that while back in the day, women were seen to be “lacking the credentials and experience” required to lead effectively, today, that criticism is no longer valid.  

Several studies, including a comprehensive one by the US Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, have since concluded that the effects of the glass ceiling are real and observable.

Career barriers women face

Women experience career barriers at three levels: societal, business, and government. Here’s how: 

  • Societal

These are generally out of business leaders’ control and relate to conscious and unconscious prejudice, educational opportunities, stereotyping, and bias related to race, gender, and ethnicity. 

  • Business

Internal structural barriers include biased recruitment practices, male-dominated corporate cultures (such as differing gender communication styles, behaviours, and ways of socialising), lack of mentoring, initial placement in dead-end jobs, lack of management training and career development, little access to committees and exclusion from networks, different standards for performance evaluation, and harassment by male colleagues. 

  • Government

Governmental barriers include a lack of consistent monitoring and law enforcement, weak collection of employment-related data, and inadequate dissemination of awareness and information to the public.

The Global Gender Gap: Where are we now?

The 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap report puts the global score for the 146 countries included at 68.4% (up 0.3% from 2022). South Africa has closed 79% of its gender gap, placing us 20th in the world and beating countries such as the U.S.A (43rd), Israel (83rd), and Japan (125th). 

However, global data provided by LinkedIn shows women are still under-represented in leadership positions across industries. While women made up 41.9% of the workforce in 2023, only 32.2% are in senior leadership positions — down nearly 10% from last year (possibly due to the ‘great breakup’).  

Generally, LinkedIn shows women can more easily break the glass ceiling in industries such as consumer services, education, and retail, whereas construction, financial services, and real estate present the most challenging conditions for aspiring female leaders to rise to the top. 

Gender bias and the Old Boy’s Club in South Africa

In South Africa, women make up 51.2% of the population and 45% of the economically active population, yet only 20.7% are board members of JSE-listed companies. In addition, studies show that women are consistently excluded from decision-making processes, and appointments to decision-making positions and jobs in specific sectors remain elusive.

According to the University of Stellenbosch Business School, one of the chief causes is that we are a “masculine society”. South Africa has similar “masculinity ratings” to the UK, USA, and Nigeria. Masculine cultures prefer achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success, whereas feminine cultures prefer modesty, quality of life, cooperation, and caring for the weak. The more masculine a culture is, the more unlikely it is that women will be accepted in positions of power as senior management. 

The masculine culture is often reflected in the “old boys club” of director networks. And although it may not consciously conspire to keep women out of leadership, it remains a place of unconscious bias.

How to get more women into top leadership

Initiatives and regulations (the Constitution, King IV, B-BBEE regulations, and the Employment Equity Act) all aim to increase the number of women in leadership roles. However, the route to the top is not always straightforward. Here are some ideas for ensuring diversity in leadership within your own organisation:

  1. Proactively create opportunities for senior-level mentoring, individual development, and training. Invest in the continued development of skills required at the top, such as Strategic Leadership, Power Skills for Team Building, and Management and Development that enhance decision-making.
  1. Change the company’s culture by addressing unconscious bias, micro-aggressions, myth-busting, and diversity matters through professional-led programmes. Partnering with organisations that support women’s empowerment will do some of the heavy lifting if you cannot go at it alone.
  1. Close the wage gap between male and female board members to signal to women that they are both equally valued and can contribute to board decision-making.
  1. Prioritise the search for talent by identifying female candidates for higher management and board positions. When looking for viable appointees, explore outside traditional networks and seek out sources like professional bodies, academia, non-profit organisations, and government.
  1. Turning managers into directors takes more than a technical skills transfer; women may need social and cultural capital to break the barriers, develop an authentic leadership presence, and successfully navigate (male) power and politics. Our Developing Women Leaders course teaches this and more. 

Promoting women leaders is good for business

Women in leadership are essential if we want to drive change in South African workplaces. Without women in decision-making roles, we stifle innovation and creativity, enforce a male-dominated culture, and perpetuate gender inequality.  

Breaking the glass ceiling comes down to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace — it’s the only way women and society as a whole can progress.

To find out how MasterStart can help your organisation create the female leaders of tomorrow, give us a shout via the Chatbot or our online form. Let’s reshape the future together. 

Enjoyed reading this post? Please consider sharing with friends


Featured Articles

Megan Stacy Deane
Posted: May 9, 2024
Megan Stacy Deane
Posted: April 26, 2024
Megan Stacy Deane
Posted: April 8, 2024