Shockingly Little Progress on Breaking the Glass Ceiling

When my daughter was in sixth grade she was shocked—SHOCKED—that there were so few women in powerful places, either in the private sector or the public sector. She thought that half of all the top jobs should go to women: half the Senate, half the House, half the CEOs, just like the student council at her school, where there was one boy and one girl for each grade.

I assured her that things were getting better and that by the time she grew up there would be women at the top of every enterprise. She is 22 now, and about to enter the workforce full time. Are we there yet? There are more women in the Senate and in the House, but a new study confirms that women are still not making progress on corporate boards.

In 1995, I worked on the release of the “Glass Ceiling” report (pdf) at the U.S. Department of Labor. Reviewing the report today, it’s clear that we’ve made shockingly little progress since then. I can find some hope in the fact that the recently named CEO of General Motors is Mary Barra. She is not just any old new CEO—she busted through the glass ceiling in one of the most male-dominated industries. But overall, there are so few women in corporate boardrooms that it’s hard to even argue for the need for a ladies room.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau—an office set up to herald and study working women. (There was supposed to be a celebration and report released today, but it was postponed due to winter weather in DC.) There has been some real progress on gender equality over the past two decades, but women still lag behind men in wages—even though we’re more educated. And the perception of progress sometimes masks the remaining inequalities. Men still dominate corporate boardrooms and the highest ranks of management. It is still, overwhelmingly, men who make the decisions about hiring executives. As we assess the progress of women in the work place, we need to reconsider policies to bust the corporate glass ceiling. It’s clearly not going to break itself.