Sharing the Wisdom of Women Warriors #4

The Glass Ceiling

First Published on March 31, 2016 by Shirley Ramos                                                                                                 
Co-founder of the Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camp

In recent posts, The Sticky Floor and The Even Stickier Ladderwe considered the reasons why women, specifically in the construction industry, hesitate to aspire to leadership positions, or upon deciding to embark on the path to promotion, why the climb up the ladder seems long, tedious and “sticky.”

For those that choose to navigate the ladder, usually over a period of several years and a multitude of experiences, there are real leadership opportunities within the industry. Middle and even “lead” management positions are attainable, with positions such as project managersenior engineer and director of safety being offered to women more often. But what about those that aspire to the C-level positions available in the industry? Is there a rung on the ladder that women are able see past but not push through? What does that look like for women leaders in construction?

Merriam Webster defines the glass ceiling as “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions”.  Other sources define it further. “The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers (“glass”) through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them (“ceiling”). These barriers prevent large numbers of women and ethnic minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.  Moreover, this effect may make women feel they are not worthy to fill high-ranking positions or as if their bosses do not take them seriously or see them as potential candidates for advancement.” This characterizes the phenomena well, but women in the construction industry also experience challenges if/when they obtain those positions that are perceived as being at the top rung of the leadership ladder.

Lisa, a young but executive level leader in a large construction company, recently shared her frustration. A peer level colleague had secured an intern to help with some of the more administrative work that had kept him at the corporate office several hours into the evening. Lisa had been sharing with her supervisor how busy she is, discussing with him the long list of activities and “jobs” that keep her from really being creative and leading her team. She was surprised that her colleague, having worked there for less than a year, was able to get help to offset the “doing” part of the role when she didn’t get more than a “you do a great job” response from her supervisor. Shaking her head she quipped, “He (her supervisor) knows how buried I am”.

Pam, a leader and part of the firm’s executive management team, was discussing some of the challenges that the company is facing and shared some of the innovative ways it was addressing those challenges. As she talked about reporting directly to the CEO, and about the other VPs she was working with, I noticed her title was director. Curious, I inquired if she was the only director level leader sitting as a full participant on the EMT. Her response was a lengthy rendition of why she doesn’t need the title. She participates fully and they have high expectations of her. She feels like she’s part of the team. She would like to someday be a VP, but for now, she gets to do the same type of work – and again – the title doesn’t matter.

Joan, a newly appointed C-level executive in an impressive and progressive construction firm, is excited about her opportunity. The only female on the executive team, she feels respected and feels heard and valued by the rest of the EMT. Although the rest of the team is male, they look to her for input and direction. Having the opportunity to work with her as her executive coach, we were discussing her plan to create a new position within her new organization. She felt compelled to rationalize adding the new position, stating that she herself could do the work. There was nobody telling her that she needed to keep on the tactical work, but she felt obligated to continue to “perform” rather than create, and was struggling to let go of what she sees as the activities that got her to the top.

Lisa, Pam and Joan are all experiencing challenges that have shown up as a result of breaking through the glass ceiling. Women may crack through that glass ceiling, but are they climbing up to the next level or hanging out in-between, with one foot still on a sticky rung while they try to effectively participate at the executive level? And if it is the latter, then why?

  • Being too tactical and not embracing the strategic: In previous posts, we referenced the phenomena that women are evaluated and seen as potential leaders as a result of their performance, which means they must prove that they are capable via multiple experiences and successes in the industry. This can create a sticky ladder for women as they compete for leadership positions in the construction industry, where men are seen for their leadership potential and often not required to demonstrate their abilities. Women can see their collective tactical activities as what propelled them to a high-level leadership position rather than the strategic, less observable behaviors that drive the tactical. Women are also multi-taskers and have the ability to “do it all,” which further gets them recognized in a male-dominated industry where women comprise 9% of the entire workforce. This combination of getting noticed and being able to do it all, keeps women from being able to really let go of the tactical and fully embrace the strategic position above the glass ceiling. For Lisa, that means being able to ask directly for an intern to support her in the “doing” instead of indirectly trying to prove to her boss that she needs help by sharing all that she does. For Joan, it means letting go of having to do it all without having to justify – and mostly to herself – that the executive level performance is about strategic leadership.
  • Thinking titles don’t matter. This just isn’t true. If a person is doing VP-level work with VPs, and with the same expectations – but if she has a director title – then that matters. And if you are the only woman on the team, there is a message there. It is a perception issue. It is a level of authority assignment. It defines the level of respect and credibility. That is why we have titles. That is how we differentiate who is responsible for what. It assigns the level of accountability. Why then was Pam “okay” with being a director on a team where everyone else was a VP? She had 100 reasons to rationalize this, but you could tell that she clearly wasn’t happy about it. Her reasoning had to do more with why they didn’t see her actual position as a VP position and less to do with her not feeling educated or capable to do the work. The conversation was clearly upsetting and she was unsettled in the discussion. Her words were “I don’t really need the title…” but her body language said something different. I have also worked with women who had taken a lesser title to get into an organization, thinking that once they got in the employer would see how hard they work and what they could do, and eventually promote them to the position/title they were qualified for in the first place. In my experience, and the experiences of the women I work with, I have never seen this result in expected title changes.
  • Not standing in our power. Attaining an executive position in the construction industry, whether you are a man or a woman, is no small feat. Those positions lead the innovation of the organizations and assume the associated risks. These are powerful positions and the expectations are great. To be successful at moving past the final rung on the ladder and fully embracing the land above the glass ceiling, women need to be powerful. The challenge comes in our historical perception of what power looks like in a male-dominated profession. Men are used to experiencing women in a supportive, nurturing role. This often looks more indirect and suggesting – with language that includes “should we consider” or “have you thought of…” A strong and decisive woman, on the other hand, may be met with hesitancy and require time to create credibility, but this is part of the change process as more women leaders bust through and capture the strategic leadership roles. Women need to stand confidently in their power, knowing that their skills and greatness will win over those who are hesitant to embrace them.

All industries need great women in leadership. A recent article in the Washington Post stated that, “There’s a very strong outperformance of companies that have women in management roles.” Women bring strengths, skills and thought processes that are complementary to men. The key to getting more female representation at the coveted C-Level and executive positions is for women to fully embrace their greatness and power. Don’t keep that foot stuck to the ladder… move confidently through the break you made in the glass ceiling!

Interested in exploring these areas more? Click here to learn more about the Women Building Change Leadership Boot Camp.