How To Face The Glass Mezzanine As Women In The Workplace And Succeed

Women in the workplace can employ strategies as they face a glass mezzanine before they reach the glass ceiling.

Women in the workplace can employ strategies as they face a glass mezzanine before they reach the glass ceiling.

Sure, the glass ceiling is there. As women leaders and women in the workplace we have been talking about it, peering through it and cracking it for decades now. We even have learned recently about the glass cliff—and hope not to fall off it when we reach the top.

But with this latest comprehensive report from and McKinsey & Co., it seems women reach a glass mezzanine long before they ever climb to the ceiling.

It seems women reach a glass mezzanine before they ever climb to the ceiling #taketheleadwomen

The study of 34,000 employees in 132 companies reveals that the pipeline to the C suite is not only clogged, but mostly blocked off almost completely for women, and particularly women of color.

“Women are less likely to receive the first critical promotion to manager—so far fewer end up on the path to leadership—and they are less likely to be hired into more senior positions. Women also get less access to the people, input, and opportunities that accelerate careers. As a result, the higher you look in companies, the fewer women you see. This disparity is especially pronounced for women of color, who face the most barriers to advancement and experience the steepest drop-offs with seniority,” according to the report.

The numbers show at the entry level in those companies studied, 46 percent are women, 54 percent are men and 17 percent of those women are women of color. In the senior manager level, the percentages drop off to 33 percent women, 67 percent men and 8 percent women of color. At the vice president slot, 29 percent women and 6 percent women of color hold those positions. Seventy-one percent of the vice president title goes to men.

At the top CEO title? Only 17 percent of women filled those shoes, with 81 percent of the CEOs who are men, and only 3 percent who are women of color. And this disparity is across many industries. The representation of women in the c-suites is at 13 percent in travel and energy industries. In the tech field, as well as consumer packaged goods, women hold 19 percent of the CEO spots. In media and entertainment, women account for 21 percent of the CEO positions. The highest percentage of women making it through the glass ceiling as CEO is in retailing and restaurants, at 29 percent.

This all comes at a timer when there is a lot of talk about gender diversity, inclusion, equity and fairness, but not a whole lot of fixing the problem for women in the workplace. Still, intention, strategies and a deliberate push to change the status quo can be successful.

“Companies’ commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, but they are struggling to put their commitment into practice, and many employees are not on board. To level the playing field, companies need to treat gender diversity like the business imperative it is, and that starts with better communication, more training, and a clearer focus on results,” according to the report.

Women get to the glass mezzanine and are likely to stay there. That is even with incentives, goals and initiatives, including the Take The Lead push for gender equity and a fair share of leadership positions across all sectors in this country by 2025. And the view of the top is even more bleak for women of color.

Women get to the glass mezzanine and are likely to stay there #taketheleadwomen

“Only 29 percent of Black women think the best opportunities at their company go to the most deserving employees, compared to 47 percent of white women, 43 percent of Asian women, and 41 percent of Hispanic women.”

Women simply do not see other women to emulate at the top in their companies, they do not get critical feedback that will help them get to the glass ceiling and try to break it. And they do not have the chance to interact with top management and senior leadership, that would possibly lead to more women being considered for top positions.

“Women report fewer substantive interactions with senior leaders than their male counterparts do—and this gap widens as women and men advance. In the same vein, women are less likely to say that a senior leader outside their direct management chain has helped them get a promotion or challenging new assignment,” according to the report.

All of this has a way of dampening ambition and reshaping aspirations for women leaders. “Women anticipate a steeper path to the top. Women who aspire to become a top executive are less likely to think they’ll get there than men with the same aspiration—and more likely to worry they won’t be able to manage work and family commitments,” according to the report.

But the great news is there are companies doing a decent job for women and working mothers. The same week of the LeanIn report, Working Mother released its annual list of the Best 100 Companies.

From Accenture to Zurich North America, these companies offer six weeks of paid maternity leave, sick child care, telecommuting and more.

Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference last week on women in corporate America, “Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. and one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent female executives, noted that greater inclusion offers a dividend for everyone,” write Lauren Weber and Rachel Louise Ensign in the Wall Street Journal.

“Study after study shows us, when you use the full talents of the population, you get better results. This has very big repercussions for economic growth. If we want our companies to outperform and we want economic growth, greater representation from women is the answer,” Sandberg said.

James Dimon, chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., weighed in on the panel concerning “the need to identify talented women and find good roles for them while also holding male leaders accountable for picking the best people for jobs, from the strongest possible slate of candidates,” Weber and Ensign write.

“If I pick my team from everybody and you pick your team from middle-aged white men, I guarantee I’ll pick a better team,”Dimon said.

So while the glass mezzanine is a level on the way to the glass ceiling, it is not impossible to crack. Many model companies are addressing the inequities and making their workplace culture amenable to women’s advancement in leadership. This is encouraging.

While the glass mezzanine is on the way to the glass ceiling, it’s not impossible to crack #taketheleadwomen

“The percentage of women being promoted into middle and senior management is higher than the percentage of women currently at those levels,” according to the LeanIn report. “If this pattern holds over time, the representation of mid- and senior-level women will slowly increase.”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon