How do you break the glass ceiling?

Early in my career, as women’s wear manager for a fashion importing company, the owner of the company told me he was sure I’d make a great mother and not want to return to work when my baby arrived. I was stunned and speechless. In that moment I felt the power to make my own decision taken from me. I didn’t realize  I’d touched the glass ceiling. 

I tell this story because it’s one of many I hear from women highlighting how the glass ceiling stays so tightly in place.

The recent spate in the media of women revealing their mistreatment by men in power is another example (#timesup). Yes we’re seeing this primarily in Hollywood and the arts, but make no mistake; it exists in corporate boardrooms across multiple industries.

The glass ceiling, a term coined by Marilyn Loden (author and feminine leadership expert) in 1978, is situated within the historical domain of male-designed and built structures. It’s as abstract as the idea that women have traditionally subscribed: to think and behave as men in order to reach upper corporate echelons.

So how does one shatter the glass ceiling?

It’s a great question with no easy, straightforward answer.

I’ll start by suggesting you think of the glass ceiling as mirrored. Of course, when you look up you see your own reflection. And that’s the point. Before you can shatter that ceiling you have to understand yourself and how you may be contributing to your own hold-back.

By no means am I suggesting we’re responsible for this type of career limitation. Rather, I believe we have influence over both how we respond to systemic traditional practices and how we actively shift those outdated rules.

Start by asking yourself these important questions:

  • Are you aware of how you show up to others?
  • What meaning do others see in your actions?
  • Does your behavior represent your values and ethical stance?
  • Are you deeply aware that you always have a choice?
  • Are you decisive or do you seek to please?
  • Do you go it alone or do you actively collaborate and develop support networks?
  • Do you continuously work on your leadership practice? Or do you find yourself most often in a reactive state?

Now let’s go deeper by testing how we may be contributing or not contributing to the glass ceiling phenomenon:

  • Are you supporting other women – peers and subordinates? Or are you competing with them?
  • Are you accepting the status quo? Or are you curious to develop or promote women-centric approaches within your current professional culture?
  • If you’re accepting the status quo, what’s holding you back from drawing on your courage?
  • Are you clear on how you use your power professionally? Is it attached to your ego?
  • Do you ask the right questions? The kind of questions that create open dialogue without being offensive or defensive?
  • Do you respectfully challenge the unwritten rules?

And, most important…

  • Do you ask for what you need?

Answering these questions can reveal how you may be holding yourself back. Knowing this can give you a clear view of cracks in the ceiling.

It’s the cracks you’ll be looking for – the opportunities to slip through. The ones that welcome you as the strong authentic feminine leader you are. It takes courage. And it means taking responsibility to be that woman who doesn’t compromise to fit in. It means taking responsibility to define and embody new cultural rules that in turn create more cracks in the glass.

As women, we’ve come to know that change does not happen quickly. It happens because we make a conscious effort to change the course. I first heard the term “glass ceiling” almost 40 years ago. While it still exists, I believe the tiny shards of glass can be heard falling on the ground.


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Comments (3)

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    Jamee Tenzer


    I love the focus here on what women can do – reflect on themselves and their strengths and find those cracks to slip through. And that the concept of the glass ceiling, once invented created a paradigm that we buy into – rather than being victims – we can work with it to get where we want to go. Great post!


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      Thanks Jamee. Yes if we want it to change, we need to work with it!


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    S. Brooke Bailey


    Such a powerful post! The questions we ask ourselves around this topic are important and you’ve really laid them out so that we can shift our view point and take action. Thanks Eve


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