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Beyond the Glass Ceiling

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sebawit G. Bishu
May 27, 2016

broken-window-960188_640Existing literature on gender based structural and systemic discrimination practices in organizations identify the glass-ceiling concept as one explanation of why women are scarce in leadership and management positions. The United States Department of Labor identifies the glass-ceiling concept as individual or institutional biases that hinder women and minorities from advancing in organizational hierarchies. Powell and Butterfield, in “Investigating the ‘Glass-ceiling’ Phenomenon: An Empirical Study of Actual Promotions to Top,” suggest a common trend in the definition of the glass-ceiling phenomenon is the invisible barriers that impede upward mobility.

Throughout the last 50 years, the government has established policies to promote level ground for women and minorities as a way to address the systemic and structural factors that espouse gender-based discrimination in the workforce. One of the most influential landmark equal employment opportunity policies instituted is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. As a result of this act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to target elimination of gender and other forms of workplace discrimination.

However, despite such policy initiatives, the effort to close the gender gap in the workforce remains to be a fiction. Today, women still remain concentrated in lower echelon positions, female dominated agencies and female dominated occupations. Additionally, equal pay for equal work remains a far-fetched reality.

Although several empirical studies have been conducted to identify factors that predict the glass-ceiling phenomenon in organizations, there are relatively less empirical studies that focus on gender disparity in levels of authority among men and women in management positions. The scarcity of empirical investigation on gender differences in levels of workplace authority is even more pronounced in the public and nonprofit sector. I contend that the gender gap in levels of authority is an evolving form of the glass-ceiling phenomenon that manifests even when women reach positions of management or leadership in the workforce.

Workplace authority refers to autonomies assigned to individuals based on their related workplace position. Workplace authority also grants an individual the autonomy to make work related decisions on behalf of an organization. Types of autonomies associated with workplace authority can vary from authority over human resources, policy and financial decisions or technical decisions on behalf of an organization. Workplace authority is also identified as an important factor that drives an employee’s workplace compensation benefits. Beyond determining an individual’s economic and other benefits, several scholars have associated the opportunity to exercise workplace authority with job satisfaction, social position, political orientation and others.

Our understanding of evolving forms of gender based discrimination practices is vital to inform researchers and practitioners alike in the undertaking to close the gender gap in employment opportunities. Particularly, empirical investigation on gender-based disparities in levels of workplace authority is critical within the context of the public sector workforce for three reasons. First, gender based workplace authority disparities that provide unequal opportunity to engage in policy discourses and decisions in the public sector compromise on the central notion of representative bureaucracy. The concept of bureaucratic representation that promotes gender and other forms of representation of the public calls for diverse representation based on the public’s demographic composition including gender and race. When women in leadership positions are deprived of the opportunity to engage in policy decisions in the public sector, established policies become singular voices, subsequently compromising the central notion of representative bureaucracy.

Second, when public organizations make biased decisions to grant authority to individuals based on non-work related factors such as gender and race, they reinforce disparities in access to opportunities thereby reinforcing economic and social inequalities among men and women in the public sector workforce.

Third, the pubic sector as a governing institution should separate itself from other sectors to establish order and equity within their workforce. Llorens, Wegner and Kellough in “Choosing Public Sector Employment: The Impact of Wages on the Representation of Women and Minorities in State Bureaucracies,” argue that government entities and public institutions have the responsibility to serve as exemplary institutions by providing equitable opportunities to its workforce. As a result, setting appropriate standards for others and itself.

Finally, I believe we should investigate ways in which practices of gender based discrimination evolve beyond the glass-ceiling phenomenon. When researchers and practitioners stay fixed on gender representation in leadership and management positions in the workforce, there is little that we know if women and minority populations are essentially granted appropriate opportunities.


Author: Sebawit G. Bishu is a doctoral candidate in public affairs at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Sebawit conducts her research on issues related to equal employment opportunity and diversity issues in human resource management in the public sector and social justice and equity issues in urban transformation. Her dissertation addresses issues of gender and authority inequality in local government administration in the United States. Email: [email protected]

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One Response to Beyond the Glass Ceiling

  1. Edgar Reply

    June 1, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Great article, and an important contribution to the addressing core issues of gender equality and development in the workforce.

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