Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Lessons from a Management Pioneer

By Miller, Thomas R.; Lemons, Mary A. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Lessons from a Management Pioneer


Miller, Thomas R., Lemons, Mary A., SAM Advanced Management Journal


In reflecting on the significance of management history, Barbara Lawrence observed that we can use it "to sharpen our vision of the present, not the past" (1984: 307). From this perspective, management history is relevant because studying an issue in light of its past can offer valuable insights on the problem in a contemporary setting. The difficulty of women's advancement into upper management positions, while representing one of the critical human resource issues of the decade, is not a product of modern times. A review of conditions preceding the women's movement suggests that barriers have long existed to women's recognition and advancement in the workplace. When women reach a certain level within a company, they sometimes hit an invisible barrier, the "glass ceiling," which prevents their rising further. According to Morrison, White, & Velsor (1987), "the glass ceiling applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women" (emphasis in original) 13.

This paper briefly examines the background and career of a remarkable woman pioneer in management, Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972), and relates her challenges to achieving recognition in the "man's world" of the early twentieth century to the problems of women today. Following a brief summary of background literature on the glass ceiling, the paper reviews the early life of Lillian Gilbreth, her educational opportunities and accomplishments, and her significant achievements in a male-dominated field. Then, it examines the relationship of Gilbreth's experiences to the challenges of women today who are attempting to break the glass ceiling.

The Glass Ceiling for Women

Although there is little question that women have made progress toward equality in the workplace, few make it to the senior levels of management. According to a recent report from the federal bipartisan Glass Ceiling Commission (1995), 95% to 97% of senior managers of Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 companies are men, yet white males make up only about 43% of the workforce. The same study reported that only 5% of senior managers in the Fortune 2000 industrial and service companies are women. These commission findings are especially striking since women make up nearly half of the workforce. A summary of studies over the 1985-1990 period revealed that the percentage of women in upper-management positions ranged from 1.1% to 5.1% (Adler & Yates, 1993). Even where women are represented in upper management positions, they tend to be in support functions such as human resources and corporate communications, which typically pay less than sales, marketing, operations, or finance, thus limiting their career earnings (Mathis & Jackson, 1997).

Apart from upper management roles, the proportion of women in management at any level is disproportionate to their presence in the workplace. Women hold 25% more of the management positions in only four of nine industry segments: finance, insurance, and real estate; services; retail trade; and transportation, communication, and public utilities (Glass Ceiling Commission Report, 1995).

Even though firms are spending millions of dollars each year to attempt to comply with legal requirements administered by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, companies continue to have problems retaining women. One study reported that over 59% of the firms surveyed indicated moderate to great difficulty retaining women managers. Often women leave the workplace at the peak of their careers after companies have invested substantial time and money in training costs (Rosen, Miguel, & Pierce, 1989). Women have a much higher turnover rate then men, and this can hurt both the exiting employee and the firm psychologically as well as financially (Caldwell, Chatman, & O'Reilly, 1990).

While women leave organizations for various reasons, Rosen et al. (1989) found the most frequent cause to be acceptance of a similar job at another organization, followed by temporarily dropping out and changing career tracks, and third, leaving to start their own businesses.

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