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Unveiling the labyrinth: Navigating sticky floors and shattering glass ceilings in women's leadership

Raj Kumar Paramanathan | Oct. 18, 2023

In the ever-evolving tapestry of the modern workforce, where strides towards gender equality have been made, the enigma of women's leadership advancement continues to perplex and challenge. Deep-seated barriers, both subtle and overt, conspire to impede the upward trajectory of women as they journey toward leadership positions. A comprehensive exploration, inspired by a collaborative study by the Center for Creative Leadership and Kestria, unravels the intricate dynamics underlying these challenges, shedding light on the complex interplay of "sticky floors" and "glass ceilings".

The tug of war: Unmasking sticky floors

At the foundational layer of women's professional ascent lies the perplexing phenomenon known as "sticky floors". The term encapsulates the subtle yet powerful obstacles that hinder women's progression from entry to mid-level positions within organizations. A poignant illustration emerges when delving into the art of negotiation for compensation increase.

Intriguingly, the barriers that tether women to these sticky floors are not born of a lack of ambition or desire for growth. On the contrary, the study unveils a paradox: women express a stronger desire for increased compensation compared to their male counterparts. However, a nuanced discrepancy surfaces when examining the psychological factors that influence negotiation dynamics.

Unlike men, women find themselves ensnared by self-limiting beliefs, often manifested through internal statements such as "I don’t know how to negotiate" or "I don’t think the negotiation will be successful" or "I don’t like negotiating". These beliefs are confounded by broader challenges faced by women, ranging from perfectionism and self-criticism to imposter syndrome and a reluctance to vocally acknowledge their accomplishments.

Grace Abella-Zata
President, Kestria Philippines

‘Women’s empowerment advocates must identify where the gaps are in an organization and create targeted interventions. In the Philippines, women are in near parity with men in middle-level managerial roles in most companies. An FMCG global giant saw that women in factories were timid and had no voice, even in the labour union. Development programs helped women to be more assertive in expressing their needs, to aim for supervisory positions and to develop the required leadership and managerial competencies,' says Grace Abella-Zata, President, Kestria Philippines.

The weight of expectation: Negotiating glass ceilings

The study also delves into a significant facet of the challenge: the "glass ceiling." This metaphorical boundary represents the upper echelons of leadership that remain elusive for many women. With the struggle to negotiate, women grapple with not only internal barriers but also with the societal backlash and negative perceptions associated with assertive negotiation.

The research uncovers a distinct push, uniquely felt by women, emanating from an acute awareness of the social consequences of negotiation. Women express reluctance to be seen as confrontational or ungrateful, and many harbor the belief that the negative social repercussions outweigh the potential benefits of higher compensation. This apprehension is bolstered by empirical evidence indicating that women who negotiate are more likely to be labeled as demanding or unlikable.

Debbie Goodman
Group CEO, Kestria South Africa & USA

‘For as long as the domestic burden remains predominantly the purview of women, the status quo of sticky floors and glass ceilings will sustain in perpetuity. Despite progress in providing equitable benefits and access to opportunities, if gender norms on the home front remain untransformed, the possibilities for change will sadly be unrealized,’ adds Debbie Goodman, Group CEO, Kestria South Africa & USA.

Contextualizing the struggle: Sticky floors and glass ceilings interwoven

Incorporating these findings into the broader narrative of women's leadership progression unveils a multi-dimensional landscape. Sticky floors manifest in women's early careers, entrapping them in roles that lack growth opportunities, equitable compensation, and skill development. The psychological entanglement of self-limiting beliefs intricately intertwines with sticky floors, anchoring women to positions beneath their potential.

As women ascend into higher leadership realms, the glass ceiling emerges as a formidable barrier. The convergence of self-doubt and societal perceptions amplifies the challenges faced by women striving to reach heights in leadership. The fear of negotiation fallout stands as a tangible manifestation of the glass ceiling's impact on negotiation dynamics, encapsulating the multi-faceted struggle faced by women.

Tomasz Sokolowski
Vice President, Kestria Poland

‘Female employees on the sticky floor may struggle to grasp unwritten career rules without mentors to guide and advocate for them. The absence of strong female role models makes it hard for them to envision leadership roles. Without visible role models, aspiring to such positions becomes challenging. Many organizations lack female leaders to inspire underrepresented communities. Mentoring or Development Center programs that focus on educating and empowering women in middle management roles play a crucial role in addressing this issue. They offer opportunities for female managers to discover and develop their strong points and remove competency barriers blocking their career development to executive positions. Numerous research proves that companies with a higher share of females on boards reach better economic results than those without gender diversity. Thus, removing glass ceilings for female leaders becomes not only a social but firstly a business necessity in a global race for winning market shares and maximising profits,’ states Tomasz Sokolowski, Vice President, Kestria Poland.

Empowering change: Breaking free from limitations

Navigating the complex web of sticky floors to shatter the resolute glass ceiling requires a multi-pronged approach. Organizations must foster inclusive environments that dismantle self-limiting beliefs, celebrate diverse leadership traits, and establish robust mentorship programs to guide and advocate for aspiring women leaders.

Simultaneously, societal paradigms must be transformed. A shift in perception is essential, achieved through educational initiatives that debunk myths surrounding negotiation and challenge the stereotypes that hinder women from asserting their worth. By altering the narrative, we can ensure that women are evaluated based on their skills, capabilities, and contributions, rather than conforming to antiquated gender-defined behavior.

Rania Abdalla
Founder & Managing Director, Kestria UAE & Egypt

'Raising awareness and providing leadership with education on gender unconscious bias will not only convert sticky floors into seamless pathways but also guide the workforce to gracefully dance within the ballroom of opportunities,’ says Rania Abdalla, Founder & Managing Director, Kestria UAE & Egypt.

A Glimpse of progress: Case studies in empowerment

The journey towards dismantling sticky floors and shattering glass ceilings is marked by remarkable stories of change. Take, for instance, the case of XYZ Corporation in the Asia-Pacific region. Through a concerted effort to address self-limiting beliefs and create an environment of empowerment, XYZ Corporation witnessed a significant increase in women's representation at leadership levels. By fostering a culture of open dialogue and mentorship, women within the organization felt emboldened to negotiate assertively, dismantling the stigma surrounding ambitious negotiation.

Similarly, the Global Empowerment Initiative, a collaborative effort across diverse industries, spearheaded a campaign to challenge societal norms and redefine perceptions of women's negotiation. Through interactive workshops, education campaigns, and allyship programs, the initiative shattered the stigma associated with assertive negotiation, fostering a new era where negotiation prowess knows no gender boundaries.

Carlos Eduardo Staut
CEO, Kestria Brazil

‘We can see in the last few years that (DEI) efforts in the workplace have a profound and positive impact on women. Firstly, these initiatives create a more welcoming and equitable environment, fostering a sense of belonging and acceptance among female employees. This sense of belonging can also boost their confidence, helping them break through gender-related barriers and stereotypes that may have previously held them back. This is a way we all can contribute to decreasing the phenomenon of "sticky floors" and "glass ceilings". We all, who play a role both in society and in the business environment, need to give special attention to any initiatives that contribute to increasing and developing women's self-confidence,’ adds Carlos Eduardo Staut, CEO, Kestria Brazil.

A Vision of the future: Soaring beyond boundaries

As we traverse the intricate terrain of sticky floors and confront the opacity of glass ceilings, we embark on a collective journey towards a future where gender equality thrives, and women ascend unhindered to leadership echelons. Let the stratosphere be the limit, unbounded by constraints, and let every individual, regardless of gender, ascend with purpose, determination, and resilience.

In this era of transformation, the narrative evolves from one of constraint to one of empowerment. The labyrinth of sticky floors and glass ceilings, once formidable, is now navigable through collective action, resilience, and unwavering commitment. As we ascend together, let our determination be the catalyst for change, breaking barriers, and fostering a world where women's leadership knows no bounds.

Japheth A. Worthy
Associate Director, Kestria Japan

‘The key to breaking this vicious cycle is not the responsibility of one individual or a certain group of individuals, but the collective effort of all of those participating in a free and vibrant society. We must identify the problems, provide the solutions and hold each other accountable to end these obstacles that have plagued generations of women,’ states Japheth A. Worthy, Associate Director, Kestria Japan.