Equal Employment Opportunity and Glass Ceilings: A Contradiction in Terms?

Article excerpt


The barriers faced by women in today's workplace are for the most part less obvious than those of the past. Gender distinctions are maintained by a variety of processes more subtle than the old barriers of discriminatory laws and rules. While the legal framework upon which Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action are founded remains intact, equity of opportunity in the workplace remains elusive. Using data generated from a survey of 253 upperlevel administrators in Florida state government, this article underscores the barriers women encounter as they attempt to advance their careers.

The article argues that the concept of Equal Employment Opportunity must be expanded beyond recruitment and hiring parameters with an emphasis on block equity to include outcomes and the quality of the opportunities women find in their work experiences, not least of which is equal opportunity to transcend glass ceilings and effect segmented equity.


According to an Equal Employment Opportunity report (EEOC, 1989), the number of women in management has quadrupled since 1970. However, the rate of upward movement of women managers provides "clear evidence of nothing less than the abiding ... sexism of the corporation" (Bradsher, 1988:1). This conclusion is reinforced by the findings from a 1991 study undertaken by the United States Department of Labor. This study of employment practices in nine Fortune 500 corporations revealed that women comprise 6.6 percent of executive-level manager positions (PA Times, 1991). A more comprehensive report by the Feminist Majority Foundation disclosed that only 2.6 of 6,500 corporate officers in the Fortune 500 companies are women (News and Observer, 1991). Women do not fare any better in management in the federal government. Although women fill 46 percent of federal white-collar jobs, they hold only 15 percent of GM-13 to GM-15 positions (Lewis, 1990). At the top of the federal government hierarchy, women hold only 8.6 percent of the Senior Executive Service positions (U.S. Office of Personnel Management, 1989).

Women fare somewhat better at the state government level. According to a recent study by Bullard and Wright (1993), 20 percent of executives in state governments are women. An ongoing study organized by Kelly et al. (1991) addresses a number of issues related to the integration of women into the managerial ranks of state government. In Arizona in 1987, "even after a persistent affirmative action/equal opportunity drive of Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt, the proportion of women in the top eight grades of the Arizona civil service was only 13 percent" (Ibid., 404). In Texas, despite Governor Ann Richards "and other high level, elected and appointed officials push(ing) strongly for AA/EO policies (Ibid.. 405), women comprised only 18 percent of the heads of state agencies and 25 percent of all administrators. The authors (Ibid., 411) conclude:

Even though progress has been relatively small and slow, affirmative action and equal opportunity policies have clearly contributed to the progress to date. Nonetheless, little evidence exists that more than a minimal level and type of equality have taken place.


How can such under-representation of women in elite positions in both the private and public sectors be reconciled with the goals and intentions of equal employment opportunity policies and practices? The inadequacy of current EEO policy may be explained in terms of varying concepts of equity. As a caveat, equity is not a concept without controversy. Changes interfere with human prejudices, tradition, and economic demands. Compliance with laws is a function of the benefits of noncompliance being outweighed by the benefits of compliance. It is thus important to note that a strong national commitment to the enforcement of laws promoting sexual equity is needed before compliance occurs (Lowi and Stone, 1978). …