Connected Career Women Series

No Fairy Tale: Sticky Floors, Broken Ladders, & Glass Ceilings

Once upon a time… let me rephrase, I am talking about now – the present moment. Right now when it comes to diversity and inclusion, you encounter all of it: sticky floors, broken ladders or leaky pipelines, and glass ceilings. It is time to dispel the myths around diversity, to demystify inclusion, and to reinforce unity. What better way to do so than by getting to the heart of the issue, the moral of the story, so to speak. It appears that we are currently living in a fictional workplace – a workplace that works better for some than for others. It is time to get real and to tackle some of the hurdles women are facing when it comes to their career progression. Join us for a tale of sticky floors, broken ladders, glass ceilings and more, not-so funny facts.

Diversity is about representation of different groups, e.g. men and women in the case of this article. Inclusion is about making that representation meaningful through actual influence and impact. Unity is about embracing the commonalities rather than being preoccupied with the differences.

On the surface a company can be diverse and inclusive, but look at the company’s organizational structure and you might see a different picture emerge.

Is the diversity at the bottom of the pyramid reflected at its top? Only, if it is, can we really talk about inclusion. Indeed, getting from the entry-level to the C-suite can turn out to be a real obstacle course for women.

Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”

Hilary Clinton, Senator & former Democratic candidate, U.S Presidency

Would you buy six outfits only to wear three? Would your company invest in a fleet of ten cars only to use five? Would you buy two loafs of bread and let one go stale? Of course not!

Then why is this exactly what we do with female or diverse talent? It does not make sense to go through the trouble of recruitment and selection to only end up investing in half of your workforce or less. Steve Jobs has been quoted as follows: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Hiring women and then letting their talent go to waste, does not make sense either. Grooming female talent is important in your organizational culture, for a better representation of women at all levels of your organizational structure, but also for a more inclusive organizational culture.

What’s more, the 21st century workplace is still far from a fairy tale when it comes to female career progression. So let us lift the veil on some hurdles along the path of female career progression. 

Educational equality doesn’t guarantee equality on the labor market. Even the most developed countries are not gender-equal. There are still glass ceilings and ‘leaky pipelines’ that prevent women from getting ahead in the workplace.

Michelle Bachelet, Former President of Chile

Sticky Floors

Some women get hired at the bottom of the pyramid into a typical entry-level position; for example, as a bank teller or as a cashier in a retail store.

Initially, the job will most likely provide some learning experience, exposure to customer service, and an opportunity to grow financial acumen.

With time though, such positions can become traps, especially for women.

The European Institute for Gender Equality defines the term “sticky floor” as follows: “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.”

If you are wondering how your company is faring in this aspect, it is good to see the distribution of women among the different levels of your corporate hierarchy and how much time women spend on average at each level as compared to men.

To address this problem, the performance appraisal process should be looked at critically, as well as the distribution of professional development opportunities among the team, and the distribution of career building strategic projects vs. business-as-usual tasks and “office housework”. 

In the latest Women in the Workplace report (2019) published yesterday by McKinsey in partnership with, it was noted that the disparities in career progression between women and men, and the lack of women at the top of management and corporate roles in the US, is caused by the large disparity in promoting or hiring women into their first management role, as compared to men.

In fact, for every 100 men promoted to management, only 72 women are promoted to management, while for women of color and Latina women in the US, the numbers are 58 and 68, respectively.

It is quite similar to the sticky floor phenomenon, but it has a new name – the “broken rung”; a phenomenon which keeps women from getting into more and more senior leadership roles.

That first step into management is key – but what if the rung you are supposed to step onto is not there?

Leaky pipelines or Broken ladders

The term of leaky pipelines is another metaphor. This one relates to career progression along a corporate “ladder” or “pipeline”.

Whereas for men the career progression might be quite direct and straightforward, research shows that for women direct career progression is much less obvious, especially for working mothers.

The effect of parenthood hardly impacts men at all, if anything, they are considered more serious and more deserving of increased responsibility and a higher salary after they become fathers. For women, on the other hand, motherhood is more of a penalty – something to not be discussed even to the point of it being advisable to not put up pictures of your children in your office, as you could be considered less “career-oriented”. If you are a man, decorating your office with your favorite family portraits is a luxury you can totally afford.

At each step up the ladder, women are assessed on past performance, whereas for men future potential tends to weigh in more heavily. Add to that the effect of unconscious gender bias on perceived performance and the impact of maternity leave on a woman’s career, and it is easy to see how women can get stuck, overlooked, or how they themselves may choose to opt out at different steps of the career ladder.

Whether we speak of broken career ladders or leaky pipelines, the result is the same: fewer and fewer women move up to more senior levels of management, and ultimately to the C-suite.

As mentioned above the metaphorical “career ladder” must have proper rungs but it turns out that, for many women in the workplace, the rungs are either broken or missing, altogether.

Glass Ceilings

You may have made it up the career ladder, and may be almost in the C-suite, but the top position – the Chief Executive Officer role- may well be out of reach.

Perhaps no woman or no minority has ever occupied that position. Perhaps the gatekeepers are all older men. In many organizations or companies, it is common knowledge what is acceptable and where the boundaries are – although this is never written down. You may have set your sights on an “impossible” goal, as per common understanding.

We all witnessed this in 2016, when the first female nominee for the US Presidency of a major US party fell short of victory. It was a great reminder to women in the US and beyond, that there is still such a thing as a “glass ceiling” – an invisible barrier for women to attain certain positions.

As invisible as glass ceilings may be (hence the “glass” qualifier), the effect is a very real barrier to women’s professional accomplishments. Yet, all the latest research points in the same direction: more gender diverse executive leadership teams and boards make less mistakes, have higher Returns on Investment, higher Return on Equity, fewer governance controversies, etc.

Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.

Hillary Clinton

Beyond that it is morally the right thing to do, there is clearly a business case for empowering and grooming female talent to reach the highest levels of leadership.

Beyond the business case for empowering women in the workplace, there is clearly also a business case against not doing so. It does not make any sense to go through the time and money investment of recruitment and selection, of training and coaching, of mentoring and so on, only to leave half of your workforce underutilized… if anything, that sounds like a bad joke or a crazy fairy tale to me… Would you agree?

Talent is like electricity. We don’t understand electricity. We use it.

Maya Angelou, American poet, memoirist, and film-maker

Lucy Schalkwijk is a women’s empowerment champion, a connector and a skills development enthusiast. She is passionate about connecting and empowering women in the workplace and writes about careers, networking, women’s empowerment, and leadership.

Want to join a tribe of successful women who have your back? Contact the Career Women’s Network Kigali: and +250783719431.

{Featured image courtesy of}

One comment

  1. This is a great summary of all the issues and arguments with the appropriate emphasis on all the benefits to an organization/business of recruiting, nurturing and promoting women. All Human Resource personnel and senior management need to review and embrace. Challenges today are too great not to fully deploy all of the resources and it just shouldn’t be that hard.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: