August 31, 2022

How Can Women Break the Glass Ceiling?

Lauren Kemp

What is the glass ceiling? 

The “glass ceiling” refers to a symbolic invisible barrier that prevents someone from being promoted within an organization or industry. This term is commonly used when describing the difficulties faced by women and minorities when trying to ascend in predominantly male-dominated hierarchies. These barriers are primarily unwritten, meaning those affected are more likely to be restricted from advancement due to accepted norms and biases rather than defined corporate policies. 

This term first appeared in 1978 and has resurfaced several times since. It has appeared on women’s panels, in Wall Street Journal articles, and sprinkled throughout other media. The equality gap varies between countries and cultures and is possibly driven by cultural norms against women and minorities from participating in the workforce. Some countries, such as the United States, have taken measures to shrink this gap by focusing on action items to increase diversity. These include hiring personnel tasked explicitly with ensuring women and minorities achieve greater representation in higher-level positions and focusing on policies that shrink the glass ceiling. This is beneficial for those typically confined by the glass ceiling and ensures that the most qualified candidates hold higher positions within a company as all people are considered for employment. 

In 2021, women accounted for 56.8% of the United States labor force; however, they held only 29.1% of chief executive positions, and 85.7% of top executives identified as white. 

Glass ceiling in finance and accounting 

Although the number of women in the accounting and finance industries continues to grow, there is still room for improvement in closing the gap. 

Accounting: Women are rarely promoted to the top echelons of the Big Four audit firms: KPMG, Deloitte, PwC, and EY. in 2017, they represented 10-20% of executives in those firms. There are several arguments as to why women have experienced far less representation in the accounting profession. Fortunately, there are organizations and policies aimed at helping women who want to focus their careers in the accounting industry. 

Scholarships and grants for women in accounting

  • EFWA stands for the Educational Foundation for Women in Accounting. These are scholarships granted to women who are earning degrees in accounting. The scholarships encompass undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate levels. The mission of this program is to support equitable access to career advancement and educational opportunities for women pursuing degrees in this field. This financial assistance provides women in accounting with an avenue for more extraordinary achievements. Women who receive this scholarship are better suited to achieve equal opportunities and rewards. The scholarship is coordinated with mentorship programs allowing accounting industry employees to share their experiences and network with mentees.
  • AFWA: Accounting and Financial Women’s Alliance scholarships are placed into two categories: open to the public and member-only. 
  • Public: These scholarships are available to undergraduates and help cover the cost of tuition for accounting or finance students in their third, fourth, or fifth year of college. This scholarship may be awarded to students attending accredited accounting colleges or university programs at the master’s level majoring in accounting or finance for students earning graduate degrees. 
  • Member: These scholarships are available to applicants that are current members of the organization. In 2011, AFWA enacted a Ph.D. scholarship to members majoring in accounting who demonstrate extreme achievement, leadership, communication skills, character, academic performance, and financial need with the intention of funding to cover research costs. This organization also offers certification scholarships for certified public accountants, financial planners, and management accountants. 
  • Finance: The C-suites in the financial industry are primarily dominated by men. The percentage of men and women entering into finance is equal, but men typically rise to the top faster than women. Fewer women mentors in financial roles lead to a more significant gender gap among top positions. This gender gap is, fortunately, shrinking, as seen in MBA programs, but it, unfortunately, begins long before entering the workforce. In venture capital firms, only 4.9% of the partners are female, and in private equity, less than 10% of senior roles are obtained by women. 

However, women's role in the financial industry is beginning to shift. With more than two decades of research and almost 23,000 FSIs in more than 160 countries, Deloitte’s data analysis could predict reasonable measures for the potential growth of women in financial services through 2030. 

Oceania leads the C-suite regional forecast, with nearly 9% growth projected, and it is the only region projected to have 30% of C-suite roles filled by women by 2030. This 30% mark is crucial as research has shown that it is a tipping point toward enacting substantive change across organizations. Europe and the United States are expected to reach at least a 6% growth of women in these roles by 2030. 

When considering an array of industries, the share of women fulfilling leadership roles within FSIs compares favorably across 11 sectors, according to S&P Global’s Gender Equality in the Workplace report. 

Glass ceiling examples

The following examples highlight how the glass ceiling manifests itself.

  • A woman was not promoted to a higher position because she plans to begin a family or is pregnant. 
  • A woman/minority member lacks the tools and resources needed to succeed at their job. 
  • Being excluded from the decision-making process
  • An employee subjected to degrading and disrespectful comments based on their gender, class, race, or sexual orientation. 
  • In 2018, it was identified that women make up about 80% of what men make nationwide.
  • The average full-time female employee made $42,295 
  • The average full-time male employee made $52,144
  • Within the private sector, a male’s likelihood of being promoted is about 1.5x higher than women's.
  • Women are promoted at higher rates than men in less than 10% of industries

The glass ceiling vs. the glass cliff

The glass ceiling is identified and defined above, but you might have also heard of the term “glass cliff. This term describes the event in which women are promoted to leadership roles only during times of crisis when they are more likely to fail. This could include when a company is near bankruptcy or when a recession is looming. This is unfortunate as women or minorities achieve the positions they have been working toward, only to discover the cards are stacked against them. 

Breaking the glass ceiling 

By acknowledging the glass ceiling and trying to break it, others are more likely to follow suit. “Breaking” means overcoming barriers to stop advancement in one’s career aspirations, paving the way for other women or minority groups to follow. More people have made an effort to shatter the glass, as can be seen in the following statistics:

  • In 2021, 41 women ran businesses on the Fortune 500, more than ever before. 
  • Two Black women are running Fortune 500 businesses for the first time.
  • Condoleezza Rice was the first woman to be a national security adviser and later became the Secretary of State. 
  • Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. 
  • Stacey Cunningham became the 67th president of the New York Stock Exchange and the first woman to hold that position. 
  • Kamala Harris was the first female and Black Vice President in the United States.

Steps to break the glass ceiling

  • Network: By building meaningful relationships with those in leadership positions and connecting with connections and continuing conversations, you can gain the support needed to identify and secure new opportunities. Those in your network will likely give you advice if they are aware of your career goals, which can be crucial to your success. 
  • Participate in training: If you are a decision maker at your place of employment, introducing bias and stereotype training may be powerful enough to shatter the glass. This can initiate conversations about workplace grievances and help avoid the unfortunate series of events that lead to a strong glass ceiling. 
  • Advocate: These barriers are invisible and often go unnoticed. For this reason, it is essential to voice your personal experiences and confront issues that have made you uncomfortable. If you notice an unfair pay gap between you and others, aim to highlight your strengths well, as advocating for yourself involves believing in your abilities and the career you hope to reach. For information on the importance of career goals and how to set them, click here.
  • Blind interviews: If you hold a position responsible for interviewing candidates to help remove any unconscious bias, blind screening is beneficial to remove any unconscious bias. This involves excluding information irrelevant to the role, such as someone’s name, gender, and age. This removes unnecessary information that is not pertinent to the job itself and allows for greater focus on the candidate by highlighting the skills, experience, and knowledge of the person rather than other factors. 
  • Diversity and inclusion promotion goals: A good step in closing the gap is to assess an organization's environment to evaluate diversity. This can show where the company is lacking inclusion and help establish what goals are needed to ensure women/minorities have the same access to opportunity. 

Written by Lauren Kemp

Lauren Kemp, Communications and Marketing Specialist at J2T, earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Management with a minor in Latin American studies and a Master of Science in Innovation and Management from Montana State University. Lauren hails from Montana and enjoys reading about the history of her home state. Her bucket-list items include touring the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, and taking an immersion trip to Chile to experience Latin American culture first-hand.

J2T is a recruiting and staffing firm that solely focuses on accounting and finance roles. J2T Flex facilitates all operational accounting needs, including all contract or contract-to-hire conditions. On the direct hire side, J2T Recruiting specializes in Sr. Accountants/Analysts through CFO and touches everything in the corporate accounting and finance organizational chart. J2T is a women-owned business exclusively serving the Colorado and Montana markets with the overarching goal to serve you in all areas of the hiring experience.