What’s holding you back at work? A sticky floor or a glass ceiling?

Is your career not progressing as fast or as far as you’d hoped? Find out why you could be victim to a sticky floor or a glass ceiling. And what needs to change to make progress.

For many decades, women’s career advancement, or rather the lack of it, was subjected to the effect of the glass ceiling. According to Wikipedia, a glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that prevents a given demographic (typically applied to minorities) from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy.

The metaphor was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women. Minority women in white-majority countries often find the most difficulty in “breaking the glass ceiling” because they lie at the intersection of two historically marginalized groups: women and people of colour.

Within the same concepts of the other terms surrounding the workplace, there are similar terms for restrictions and barriers concerning women and their roles within organizations and how they coincide with their maternal duties. These “Invisible Barriers” function as metaphors to describe the extra circumstances that women undergo, while trying to achieve the oh-so elusive work-life balance. 

Basically, “a glass ceiling” represents a barrier that prohibits women from advancing toward the top of a hierarchical corporation. Those women are prevented from receiving promotion, especially to the executive rankings, within their corporation. In the last twenty years, the women who have become more involved and pertinent in industries and organizations have rarely been in the executive ranks. Women in most corporations encompass below five percent of board of directors and corporate officer positions.

What’s the difference between a glass ceiling and a sticky floor?

While the glass ceiling effect illustrates the barriers in the medium and high rankings of job positions, the ‘’sticky floor’’ emerges slowly but steadily and depicts the situation in low and medium ranking. Regardless of education level or field of occupation, almost all the executives, employees and entrepreneurs have to go through the low and medium stages of employment/entrepreneurship.

What is the defining moment though that determines whether or not some women will make to the top and some others will remain at the same or slightly higher ranking? This is where the ‘’sticky floor’’ comes forward.   

The ‘’sticky floor’’ is the expression used as a metaphor to point to a discriminatory employment pattern that keeps workers, mainly women, in the lower ranks of the job scale, with low mobility and invisible barriers to career advancement. The obstacles and barriers in the early stages of one’s career path are acting as an adhesive tape that glues the person to the ‘’floor’’ and does not allow it to climb the corporate ladder. 

And the next question is more than logical and anticipated. 

What are these obstacles and barriers?

Unexpectedly enough, it is not the lack of proper education. 

Rebecca Shambuagh, author of “It’s not a Glass Ceiling, It’s a Sticky Floor” identifies five (among others) factors that create a sticky floor and that get in the way for women.

1) Challenges with work-life balance

Required measures that are required and support women with children or women as care-givers, are not present measures. Several countries attempt to establish policies that will act as an aid towards those women while including the partner but stereotypes, lack of education and information regarding task delegation are getting in the way of the actual implementation.

The pandemic has not helped the situation either. New research from LeanIn.Org shows that women are doing significantly more housework and caregiving than men during the pandemic, and they are showing signs of anxiety and burnout as a result. Women feel overwhelmed because they are shouldering a heavier workload.

Among women and men who have full-time jobs, partners, and children, women are spending an average of 7.4 more hours per week than men on childcare (39.8 hours vs. 32.4 hours), and 5.3 more hours caring for elderly or sick relatives (10.4 hours vs. 5.1 hours).

Most women are also spending at least 7 more hours than men on housework (57% of women are spending 21 hours or more, while 60% of men are spending 14 hours or less). That adds up to a difference of almost 20 hours per week — the equivalent of a part-time job.

2) Letting perfectionism get in the way

Let us begin by saying the truth that few dare utter. Perfection is unattainable. The ‘’hunt’’ of perfection, especially when it comes to work, is never-ending and causes anxiety, stress, lack of focus and most of all, stops us from being ‘’present’’ at work, seizing the opportunities.

Instead, we can all acknowledge the fact that we do our best, we try and try, we are using all the skills and knowledge we have towards our work tasks and most importantly, we embrace failure. Failure is part of the plan, not a detour towards the elusive perfection.

3) Waiting for hard work to be recognized (rather than taking control of your own destiny)

Self promotion in terms of highlighting your career/education milestones is not to be scrutinised or frowned upon but something is becoming rather indispensable. The competition on any career field is tremendous and any kind of skill/competence/knowledge that can differentiate us from the competition and give us the ‘’edge’’ is valuable. On the other hand, if we do not promote these attributes for ourselves, why should anyone else?  

4) Not speaking up in the moment; waiting for the right words at the right time

This is not about being impulsive or not having a ‘’filter’’ when communicating at work. This is the second thought. The silence and the thoughts that race our minds when we are in a meeting, in a conference or at a casual yet significant conversation with a superior.

The ideas that are brilliant and innovative and stay ideas because we did not write them and emailed them, we did not verbally express them in those meetings. Basically, it is the lack of work-related confidence. Confidence is consisted of three main pillars: Change, Failure and Acceptance. If we build on these pillars and embrace their true meaning, then confidence is ours. 

5) Not leveraging mentors and creating a support network

Mentoring is a process that describes informal knowledge transfer, psychosocial support, work-related development, career, usually face-to-face communication over an extended period between a person considered to have a greater relevant knowledge or experience and a person considered to have less. The mentor helps the mentee clarify goals and organize a plan to achieve them by sharing with him the experiences and knowledge he has gained.

Real guidance is more than just answering questions or occasionally helping. It is a continuous relationship of dialogue and learning. The opportunity to join a mentoring relationship either as a mentor or as a mentee is an opportunity for knowledge and requires its full utilization with always a positive vibe from both parties involved. It not only ensures the knowledge and its transformation into a valuable experience, but it also contributes to the formation of the work character, it offers to the professional development and that is invaluable.

What’s holding you back? A glass ceiling or a sticky floor?

The question arises then. Glass ceiling or Sticky floor? Actually, and unfortunately, it is both, Glass Ceiling and Sticky floor. The hardships that women have to face in terms of entrepreneurship or high-ranking positions tend to surface at a very early stage of their career development, thus redirecting them to alternative (and less demanding) career choices or by limiting their advancement once they get off the sticky floor.

Additionally, once they start climbing the corporate ladder, the glass ceiling is present and hovering over their heads. Role models and influence is a major change maker factor. Women who are successful should act as role models for women that hesitate to follow their dreams and aspirations. 

What can we do to make progress?

Those in positions of power must impact on the corporate systems to reveal the biases and systemic elements that keep women and minorities downgraded to corporate lower levels. Once identified, we must work towards shattering or creating huge cracks on the glass ceiling. This will be the result of the effort put by those who can reshape the corporate boundaries and rules. Those who will act as active role models and who will question and enquire everything and anything.

This also means that we, the women working and studying, struggling to get somewhere in our careers and lives, must do the work too. Identify what work-life balance means for us and start delegating tasks. Let go of the notion that we must be perfect to talk, suggest, change, ask. Create or re-charge our networks and support other women on their ventures. 

This is the perfect time to create a new reality for women. Let us begin. 

Maria Zarotiadou , M.Sc., is the Managing Director for Plan of Business. She is a Gender Equality Expert and member of the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez