Shattering Technical Staff Glass Ceilings

While the “glass ceiling” has been discussed since the late 1970s, it is sadly still in full force 40 years later. The glass ceiling is defined as “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier, that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”[1] A glass ceiling inequality is further defined[2] as a gender or racial difference that:

  • is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee;
  • is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome;
  • affects the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels; and
  • increases over the course of a career.

In STEM-based businesses, management and technical staff pipelines diverge. Although much attention has been devoted to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the management/corporate pipelines (ending in the C-Suite), very little has been done to keep women from bumping into the glass ceiling as they move along the rigorous technical pipeline. Often, glass-ceiling inequality is dismissed as an inadequate supply issue (not having enough women and minority STEM workers at entry level), but this is not reality. In the past two decades, women have earned approximately 20-25 percent of bachelor’s through doctoral engineering degrees. We should be seeing these percentages on the highest rungs of technical staff ladders also, but we are not.

To fix this problem, we must target D&I representation throughout the technical pipeline (from entry level, through distinguished, fellow and CTO level). Companies must set goals, and management must be held accountable to meet D&I goals at all levels along the technical innovation pipeline. We must also demand rigorous analysis and transparency (as highlighted in McKinsey&Company’s report[3]).

While devoting my career to technical innovation through my R&D efforts in the national radar community, I have observed glass-ceiling inequality in technical pipelines firsthand in numerous organizations. Mentoring and outreach for D&I in STEM is still important to me, but my passion now is to shatter technical staff glass ceilings by bringing scrutiny to and raising corporate awareness of the D&I dearth throughout the technical pipeline, and by encouraging the use of scientific research principles to quantify this issue and to verify the progress of initiatives meant to address it.

[1]Glass Ceiling Commission. Solid Investments: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital. U.S. Department of Labor, 1995.

[2]D. A. Cotter, et al. “The glass ceiling effect” (PDF). Social Forces. 80 (2). 2001

[3]A. Krivkovich, et al. ”Women in the Workplace 2018” (PDF).