By Paul Igasaki, Featured EEO Columnist


Examining statistics on who gets promoted into management and, particularly, who gets the top spots in any organization show that even employers with the best general employment diversity records may not fare as well in fostering diversity in organizational upper atmosphere. The higher the position, in both the private and public sectors, the less likely that women or minorities will fill it. Why? Is it because minorities and women haven’t amassed the same level of education and experience to get those jobs? Or is it because the powers that be are stingier with those who are “different” at levels where real money and power are involved? In fact, the reasons for the glass ceiling are much more complex than that.

A number of years back, a federal government commission examined the effects of the glass ceiling by studying the nation’s largest companies. It found that top management positions comprised 95% males and 97% whites. While some of this imbalance has likely improved in the years since, it remains today almost always big news when a woman or a racial minority becomes CEO of a large corporation. Conditions in the government sector are not so different. Although more women and members of at least some minority groups hold leadership roles in government, there are far fewer than would be available in the labor force, and the under-representation remains pretty pronounced.

Again why is this?

One cause of such disparities in management can often be traced back to hiring processes, and to the existing managers who enact them. Although it is sadly more present than I would have hoped for at this point in our history, outright executive prejudice — not wanting to allow minorities and women in authority — is probably rare. However, entrenched stereotypes and biases natural to us all are more pernicious and less conscious than overt prejudice. Their impact is far more powerful in creating the glass ceiling phenomenon.

The more subjective the criteria used in the hiring or promotions process, the more likely it will be that one’s assumptions and stereotypes affect the decision.

Without carefully analyzing why we think this way, when considering someone we will make assumptions that may not be correct.

Among those who evaluate candidates for managerial roles – especially top positions – priority will be given to those who have already held positions offering some management experience at lower levels. This creates a preference for those who have “done better” or at least “gone farther” in the past, which may from the start reduce the opportunity for women and minorities. This exacerbates the effect of stereotypes in hiring.


Diversity in Staff and Diversity of Style

These biases can be deeply rooted in women and minority hiring managers as well, whose role models , mentors and colleagues don’t look like them

Some of the most commonly stated requirements in candidate searches, such as “leadership” and “communications” skills, cannot be quantified and so are particularly open to subjective and possibly biased interpretation. The evaluator’s personal background, experiences, and internal assumptions about what constitutes “leadership” will powerfully determine what kind of person can be envisioned in the position. That evaluator’s own past role models will help form that mental image; similarly, a glance around the organization’s current executive structure can also reinforce models of leadership valued in the past. And, as the federal glass ceiling study points out, it will be highly unusual when these leadership models are not defined, represented and fulfilled by a white male.

Styles of leadership and communication vary. Aggressive, take-charge styles are strongly favored. While, theoretically, team-building or teaching styles are also appreciated, the prevailing management ethos in the U.S. values the assertive, gung-ho and even martial style above others. Media representations of organizational leaders, along with one’s own economic, ethnic and regional backgrounds, will be primary building blocks for an evaluator’s internal image – or stereotype — of “what a leader looks like” – or acts like, or sounds like.

A candidate’s slight accent may be used as a shorthand to conclude that communications skills are lacking although the person may be very good at explaining complex ideas.

Whether stated or not, some of the most common and important criteria applied in hiring decisions are whether a candidate will “fit in” with the existing leadership team and organizational culture, and whether he or she will be someone the other staff will be most comfortable interacting with. Inevitably, this is someone “who is like” – or at least who fits the comfort zone of – the person making that judgment call. A colleague once worked on a hiring committee whose chair instructed members to ask themselves, “Is this someone I would like to go to lunch with on a regular basis?” I have even been told about a company that evaluates potential team members by asking a question along the lines of, “Is this person someone you would want to be stuck on a desert island with?”

This dynamic is especially apparent when candidates are being evaluated by those who will work closely with them.  Although it may be understandable, it should also be obvious why this perpetuates the demographics of a non-diverse management team.

The biases and images I am discussing can be deeply rooted in women and minority hiring managers as well — even against candidates with backgrounds and orientations similar to their own. Yes, they may have been personally inspired by someone who had “cracked the glass ceiling” before them, and may have progressed far themselves. However, the statistical fact is that they too will most often find that their role models and mentors and colleagues in leadership positions don’t look like them. Indeed, they may be hyperaware of the challenge to “fit” the organizational culture if they have experienced it in their own work paths.

Breaking Through

Ultimately, stripping away its emotional baggage and occasional abuses, affirmative action is the solution that makes business sense

The glass ceiling is not healthy for anyone. It suppresses the diversity that is America’s most unique and powerful advantage. Consider, for example, that in most other industrialized countries, speaking two or even three or four languages is the norm. In the United States it is not, even though our ethnic richness provides us more native speakers of more languages than perhaps any other nation. It is no wonder that customer service can be economically farmed out to many nations for English speakers.

The most competitive companies and forward-thinking government bodies are well aware of the significant differences among American consumers — from food and language and clothing preferences to more profound values and beliefs. Without people on your team who understand those differences you are playing at a distinct disadvantage.

Breaking the glass ceiling requires addressing it head on. If you are serious about a diverse team, you need to understand why you don’t have one and how you will assess efforts to get one. Are there barriers you haven’t considered leading to a non-diverse hiring pool? Is your recruiting regionally limited or overweighting certain schools? For example, failure to recruit in urban areas will reduce racial diversity; failure to go to the South may reduce the number of Africans Americans, to the Southwest Latinos, to the West Asian Americans. To assume those from Ivy League or Seven Sisters schools are automatically superior will cut off many qualified candidates. Failure to recruit at historically African American colleges, or to avail yourself of ethnic media outlets and multicultural professional networking resources, will also have an exclusionary impact.

Consider whether each hiring criterion is really what you need in the position. If so, is it being applied objectively or subjectively, in ways that limit the diversity of your pool?

Ultimately, the solution is affirmative action. While politicians struggle with this sometimes unpopular concept, as the Supreme Court has recognized for education, and any company that seeks quality and diversity has been practicing, affirmative action is an important tool.  Stripping away its emotional baggage and occasional abuses, the policy makes business sense. Looking more carefully at each hiring decision will not only help move the organization closer to its diversity goals, but result in better staffing decisions across the board.


U.S. Workforce Diversity @ EEOC (2000)
Quick reference chart shows diversity statistics broken down by ethnicity, gender, and occupation level (management, professional, technical, clerical, and more)

Establishing goals based upon what is available in your potential hiring pool will serve as an important yardstick for measuring your efforts. Without some numbers about what is possible, diversity is a concept without practical effect. These shouldn’t be quotas. To the extent that you lock yourself into requiring certain characteristics for a position, you will run afoul both of discrimination law and of the reasons those who don’t understand how affirmative action should work oppose it. Falling below your goals in your hiring pool should spur you to retool and target your recruitment efforts. Falling below your goals in your hiring decisions might suggest a review of the hiring criteria and how it is being applied. This should also be applied to internal promotional practices, or it could suggest the need to consider more external choices in the pool.

Having satisfied these reviews, some inequality is inevitable, but over time, with serious commitment to diversity we will all do better. Failure to take action will make the glass ceiling turn into a concrete one.


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Paul M. Igasaki Paul Igasaki is a consultant in diversity, equal opportunity, government and community affairs.  Recently, he edited A Call to Action, a historic policy platform for a coalition of national Asian Pacific American organizations.  Appointed by President Bill Clinton, he served as Vice Chair or acting Chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1994 to 2002, gaining recognition for restructuring the agency to eliminate a crippling case backlog and for building credibility in protecting the rights of immigrant Americans and victims of sexual harassment.  He previously served as Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco and as Washington, D.C. Representative of the Japanese American Citizens League. He also worked for the City of Chicago, his hometown, as a liaison to Asian American communities and as a Mayoral advisor on human relations and affirmative action.  His career also included efforts to provide civil legal services to the poor, both at the national level for the American Bar Association supporting collaborations between legal aid and private attorneys and at the local level as a legal services attorney in Sacramento, California.  He is an attorney in California and Illinois, and was a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of California, Davis. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.