A glass ceiling or a free choice?

The concept of a glass ceiling was very appropriate for a time, and it is still prevalent today due to its apparent explanatory power. The expression caught on so well because when it first emerged in 1986, it quite accurately explained the difficulties women had in moving up the corporate ladder in businesses and organizations on account of invisible barriers –built by men– which kept them from doing so. However, society as a whole –both men and women– has been working for years to remove obstacles that used to exist (and still do to some extent) and to allow female talent to reach any height within organizations, businesses, or politics. Thus, I believe that we can now risk making an analysis that is more relevant to our time. There is plenty of research and knowledge allowing us to affirm that glass ceilings are not the only reason that there are not more women in managerial positions. Setting aside the untenable discourse on the differences in ability between the sexes, one thing is clear according to S. Pinker (2002): “In most professions, average differences in ability are irrelevant, but average differences in preferences may set the sexes on different paths.”


Even when their abilities are similar it seems that men and women tend to make different career and life choices. This tendency was demonstrated by Benbow and Lubinski’s study (1992) in which they took a large group of children who were gifted in 7th-grade math and well aware of their capabilities. The girls told the authors that they were more interested in people, social values, and humanitarian goals. The boys overwhelmingly preferred things, theoretical values, and abstract reasoning. When they went on to college, they mostly chose careers in science and engineering while the girls chose social and human sciences. Similarly, in its report “Women, Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering” (1998) the National Science Foundation concurred that “Many more women than men reported that they had chosen SME [science, mathematics, and engineering] majors at the prompting of family or teachers, rather than for reasons of field or career interest,” and many women left the field for that reason.

In other studies, Buss and Ellis (1992) showed that work seems to bolster self-esteem much more in men than in women; part of their appeal as a partner actually depended on it. In addition, men are more willing to accept discomfort and physical danger if the work is well-paid. And finally, it was found that men at the same skill level as women took more risks: they preferred to work in companies while women opted for state agencies and NGOs.


Working for companies and striving for promotions is less appealing to women than to men. This does not mean that women do not want to strive for anything, but rather that they are not interested in doing so for that purpose as strongly as men are.

McKinsey’s 2013 report “Women Matter” includes a study on 130 large companies with over 10,000 employees. It showed that women make up 52% of entry-level positions but their proportion shrinks as we go higher in the structure. Thus, they make up only 22% of middle management, 14% of senior management and vice presidents, 9% of steering committees, and only 2% of CEOs. Is there one glass ceiling or four? Are invisible barriers slowing women down or do they choose to devote their talent to other things?

Mckinsey, in the same report, explains that of those 130 companies, 82% had begun 10 or more conciliation measures, but only 16% of them noticed a positive change in the women’s decisions.

The struggle to ensure equal opportunities must continue, because there are still barriers, but we must be honest and realistic while analyzing the causes of the lesser presence of women in high positions. Being politically correct doesn’t always bring us closer to the truth. I think Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate, 2003. Penguin Books) is right when he says “In a cutthroat market, any company stupid enough to overlook qualified women or to overpay unqualified men would be driven out of business by a more meritocratic competitor.”


Juan San Andrés

Management consultant: human factors, management team, and organization.



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