Advancing our Careers Despite the “Sticky Floors,” “Broken Rungs” and “Glass Ceilings”

Veronica Alvarez & Betty Gabriela Rodriguez



The historic women’s strike that took part in Iceland in 1975 showed the world what society would look like if women were not present. 90% of Icelandic women set aside their day-to-day duties to fight for an even bigger one, gender equality. Accounts of people who were present on that emblematic day say that the country was completely paralyzed, from rural to urban areas and in most sectors of the economy. Men had no choice but to deal with children, bringing them to work because of lack of childcare, feeding them, and taking them to school. Some shops were closed, leaving customers scrambling for other places to purchase goods. Departments in offices were empty, having to wait for the next business day to resume their work. As former Icelandic Prime Minister Vigdís framed it, “so many companies and institutions came to a halt, it showed the force and necessity of women – it completely changed the way of thinking.” Unsurprisingly, Iceland has been the leading country in gender equality since then, being the front-runner for 11 consecutive years. Nonetheless, the gender gap persists, and a lot remains to be done even in the beacon that is Iceland for gender equality.


A lot has improved since then. For example, worldwide gender gaps in primary and higher education have mostly closed, currently at 96.1% according to the World Economic Forum. Additionally, it has been reported that both men and women tend to get hired for entry level positions at a similar rate. Although the biggest area of worry, which seems to be widening, is that of overall economic participation and opportunity, where gender parity is at 57.8%. In other words, it will take approximately 257 years for the world to reach gender equality, a number that has become larger since the 202 years stated in the Global Gender Gap Report of 2019.


The struggle women face in workplace advancement has been proven to start right after they are hired. Starting with some “sticky floors;” if overcome, potentially followed by “broken rungs” and certainly, the final challenge, the well known “glass ceiling.” The European Institute for Gender Equality defines “sticky floor” as an “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.” LeanIn.org and McKinsey termed this the “broken rung,” referring to the next step of the ladder that does not let women advance professionally. When women are able to get promoted, they are faced with the infamous “glass ceiling,” which prevents them from accessing top leadership roles in the same way men do. Putting this into perspective, the report states that only 72 women are promoted and hired for every 100 men in the United States. This struggle is even tougher for Latina and black women, with just 68 and 58 respectively for every 100 men. In addition, as their experience goes, black women have reported feeling an emotional tax in the workplace. In 2016, a Catalyst study demonstrated that black women feel as if they have to be “on guard” with their coworkers at all times, reducing their sleep and rest time significantly. A similar situation occurs to Latinas in the workplace, reporting that they cannot fully be themselves with their colleagues because when they are, they are told to relax and calm down, according to the Harvard Business Review. These constant feelings at work will not allow employees to perform to their fullest potential, further contributing to the disparity.



3 Ways To Overcome These Challenges

  1. Ask about career development policies and plans within the organization. Beyond the salary, the health insurance, the vacation, the sick and parental leave and the pension plan, we need to start negotiating and owning our own career paths. Harvard Business Review, in their recent study titled “Nice Girls Don’t Ask,” refers to data showing that only 7% of women negotiated their salaries, while 57% of their male counterparts refused their first salary offer. Understanding how the organization manages promotions, internal transfers, training opportunities, mentoring programs and performance awards/bonuses, will provide you with a clear scenario to get out of the sticky floor situation. If you feel uncomfortable reaching out to the Human Resources Department, you can also rely in supervisors and senior talent for an informational meeting.

  2. Know your rights. Most medium and large organizations (100-1000 employees) have a diversity and inclusion policy. These policies provide internal regulations to protect employees from any type of discrimination, including work and sexual harassment and, in short, to create inclusive, equitable and respectful workplaces for everyone. Whether it is race, gender, ethnicity or age, these policies are there to fix the broken rung many women are facing in their careers. McKinsey’s 2019 Women in the Workplace Report revealed that 87% of companies are highly committed to gender diversity.

  3. Embrace affirmative action measures. Quotas are well known and accepted in politics to promote a broader representation, but the corporate arena is a whole different story. Despite small progress in corporate America, gender quotas in corporations are old news in Europe. Norway set the example in 2003 followed by countries like Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and France. Finally, in 2018, California became the first state to mandate at least a woman in every board of publicly-traded companies. Also, Pennsylvania, passed a resolution urging both public and private companies to have a minimum of 30% women on their boards by 2020. This also shows an opportunity to promote this specific affirmative action in the US. As Viviane Reding, former European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, stated gender quotas are the hammer to smash glass ceilings but they need to be accompanied by a women’s empowerment process as well.


It is our responsibility as a society to make sure we close these gender equality gaps ourselves. While it is important for organizations to take action, we as individuals cannot sit around and wait until they do so. Let’s be conscious of our power as consumers and choose where we purchase our products and services from. Are these places sustainable? Are they diverse? Do they represent the communities they serve? Let’s be amplifiers to those who are more vulnerable than us, raising them up so they can continue climbing the ladder on their own. Let’s encourage and sponsor women of all races, ages and backgrounds, especially those dealing with sticky floors and broker rungs in our own workplaces. Let’s build welcoming environments where we can accelerate gender equality by owning up to our own unconscious biases, replacing them with sisterhood and empowerment community initiatives. As LeanIn.org and McKinsey suggest, companies must make diversity a priority in their business, not only will this leverage their financial opportunity, but it will contribute to more equal societies for the generations to come.


Photo: Iceland Women's History Archives

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