Sticky Floors and Bamboo Ceilings

While women in the United States have been making some progress in gaining leadership roles within large organizations, the situation is not the same in China, according to a new report.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
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Women in the United States have long been familiar with the glass ceiling, that invisible yet restrictive barrier that has kept them from gaining senior-level positions. A recent study from Business Horizons, the Journal of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, suggests the situation may be even more significant for women in China making their way through the ranks.

The report indicates that, in China, only one in four women have made it to the highest levels of management; those that have find themselves in positions like CFO, COO or HR director. More than half -- 53 percent -- of Chinese women are caught in what the report's author, Shimin Liu, refers to as "sticky-floor situations," never advancing beyond lower-level positions. Based on a literature review and an exploratory study based on interviews with six senior women managers in China, Liu identified barriers both organizational and individual that hamper Chinese women's rise to the top.

But despite geographic and cultural differences that separate China from the U.S., the factors identified by Liu are strikingly similar to other research and experiences for both women and, notably, for other groups as well.

Tara Gonsalves is a research associate with the Center for Talent Innovation in New York, which has conducted a similar study that sheds light on Asian women's experiences in the United States. While Asians are well-represented at top schools and have a traditionally lower unemployment rate, when compared to other racial and ethnic groups, less than 2 percent of Asian Americans are Fortune 500 CEOs or corporate officers. The report, released in 2011, looked at this disparity and examined the subtle workplace biases and dynamics that keep Asians from making it onto the top rungs of an organizational ladder.

Their findings, similar to the Liu report, suggest that Asians are hampered by perceptions they are less adept at networking; they are passive and reticent; and they are less likely to contribute or share their views. Asian women were 29 percent less likely than their Caucasian counterparts to contribute to a group meeting or share their views privately with their managers. Both Asian women -- and men -- were least likely of any group to challenge a consensus in a team meeting.

The result: they end up "stuck." While Liu refers to this as the "sticky floor," Gonsalves says the Center for Talent Innovation has called the same observed phenomenon in the United States the "marzipan layer" or "the sticky middle."

Recent research from the Hay Group is similarly aligned with what Liu found, says Ruth Malloy, the firm's Boston-based global managing director of leadership and talent. "We've been doing a lot of research in diversity and women, as well as a lot of large global organizations, and what I found striking was how similar the themes were that the author found for the Chinese women that we're seeing for U.S. women, or women from other cultures in general," says Malloy. "There does seem to be something universal."

Those similarities, in fact, extend beyond geographic, gender and other differences.

While Liu's research was limited to Chinese women in China, both Malloy and Gonsalves note that their research suggests other groups suffer the same barriers to promotion.

"We did one study with a large global technology firm and we looked at eight constituencies," says Malloy. "They were people with disabilities, GLBT, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American, women, international women -- every group thought they were unique and we ended up creating a document of meta-themes about how many things they had in common."

The traits that keep people out of top positions may really not be that different. "Each group had unique differences, but there were a lot of common ones," says Malloy. For instance: speaking up or asking for the job, the assumption that if they do well they will be noticed, and the failure to do proactive career planning." 

"These issues are definitely common among other groups as well," agrees Gonsalves. "We've done research on people of color in general in the U.S. - one study looking at the sponsorship, another report coming out soon on executive presence for people of color in the United States. So we've found that these are definitely issues for racial and other minority groups and also for women in general.

"Women encounter a lot of these issues," she says, "regardless of their race."

In fact, while their research shows that Asian men feel stalled in their careers at a significantly higher level (63 percent) than African American (46 percent), Hispanic (51 percent) and Caucasian (48 percent) men, Asian women feel less stalled, at 44 percent, than African American (58 percent), Hispanic (50 percent) or Caucasian (46 percent) women. But, while Asian women are less likely to feel stalled in their careers, they are more likely to report they have "scaled back at work" due to bias (31 percent), compared to African American (22 percent), Hispanic (19 percent) or Caucasian (10 percent) women.

It is interesting to note, though, that all of these groups express some sense of being held back from the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. HR has an important role to play in helping to ensure all of the organization's employees are able to navigate a path to the top.

Ed Hannibal, the Chicago-based North American leader of Mercer's global mobility consulting service, says it is important for organizations to -- at least initially -- very clearly define what they are looking for in their leaders. "As part of that, what are the development criteria for senior leaders? And, isn't it about being a leader and really not your sex?"

The process for doing this is fairly straightforward, he says.

"As companies look at their total talent pool, it's usually about the assessment and growing their population and how are they engaging through, say, employee-engagement surveys to know their female population and all of their population who want to advance, and what they're looking for and what their skills are, and then developing that hi-po talent pool, looking at your immediate pipeline and then succession planning from there."

It's really about HR linking with the business, says Hannibal. "Where is the business going? What do they need in their leaders? And to look across your entire diverse portfolio of employees."

HR organizations also need to "make sure they're looking at all possible candidates. You want to make sure there are no boundaries that would prohibit women (or others) from being considered for those roles. That's the challenge for HR."

But organizations and HR leaders are not solely responsible. As Liu's report suggests, and the Hay Group supports, there is work to be done by both individuals and organizations to help bridge these gaps. In fact, the Hay Group has identified what they call "personal helps and hinders" along with "organizational helps and hinders" that impact how employees rise to the top.

One thing that HR leaders can do, whether in China, the United States or elsewhere, is to play a more active role in helping to break down some of the barriers that keep women, and others, out of the informal networks "where a lot of business happens."

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"I think HR could probably do some work to manage this," says Malloy. "In general, when you're in a minority group, it's often harder to connect with a majority group," she says. "Unfortunately, people feel more comfortable with people like themselves." Providing opportunities to break through these barriers and create opportunities for interaction and networking can be a role for HR.

Larger, multi-national organizations, notes Malloy, often have "constituency" or "cohort" groups, where employees are able to share their experiences and engage in peer coaching. "These lessons learned can be very helpful and having the support of being able to share and having good female role models," she says.

While mentoring programs have been a common approach used to provide guidance for various groups, Malloy notes that "what I've heard from many organizations I've worked with is that when this is formalized it doesn't really work that well because it's kind of forced matchmaking. It seems to be that when it works the best is when people make those matches on their own." But, she adds: "What organizations can do is create a forum or environment to help create those matches."

Organizational norms that may create subtle biases for women may also exist in some organizations, notes Malloy, and represent another opportunity for HR to play a role. For instance, "managing norms that respect one's work/life balance, so not scheduling meetings on weekends or late at night, or becoming more friendly in having flexibility, which benefits both men and women more and more."

In addition, Malloy notes, women are less likely than men to speak up and "ask for the job," as Sheryl Sandberg discussed in her book Lean In.

"It's sort of a cultural value where women are often brought up that it's not appropriate to brag." She tells of one woman executive who had gone to a women's group at her organization where they talked about asking for the job. After the group she was in the parking lot and she saw her manager. "She finally said, 'OK, I'm going to do it; I'm going to speak up'." She told the manager she was interested in the job and he said: "Well, I've been waiting three years to hear you tell me this."

An important lesson for HR here: making sure that managers understand their role in identifying talent among their staff members and not just waiting for them to come forward. There are, though, things that individuals should be doing to help boost their own leadership potential.

It's important for employees, says Hannibal, to understand what the organization is looking for in its leaders and then taking steps to develop their stills in these areas and to take advantage of opportunities that arise.

The assumption that if they work really hard, they will be noticed (what Sheryl Sandberg has referred to as the "tiara syndrome" in Lean In) is an assumption "that really gets in the way," says Malloy.

 "I think it's about women looking for the opportunities and then building their network in an organization," says Hannibal. "Women, and men, as well." They should also not be reticent about expressing their interest in these opportunities.

But, says Malloy, women should not try to "act like men," another common trait that can hold them back. In a study done by Hay Group, she says, both men and women who represented "outstanding" and "typical" leaders were looked at in terms of the traits they exhibited. In replicating the study recently for China, she says, "we found that women who tried to replicate the men were not seen favorably -- they were seen as 'typical.'

"The 'outstanding' women had a broader repertoire of styles," she says, "meaning they showed the masculine styles, but they also showed a lot of the feminine styles. You really have to have a mix of both."


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