Political Forces in the Glass Ceiling

Despite all of the political forces on the side of women who attempt to break through the glass ceiling, limited progress has been made. Numerous studies lament the virtual absence of women in the elite tier of corporate positions: chief executive officer, chairman, president, and executive vice president. Unfair employment practices strengthen the glass ceiling and hinder the advancement of women in the workplace. These practices include sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and pregnancy discrimination. Although activists have succeeded in getting stronger laws passed, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1991, true progress eliminating the glass ceiling must be based on private sector initiatives.
The Civil Rights Act of 1991 gives women considerable more clout in their defense against discrimination than did the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination against women who successfully filed suit against their employers for unfair practices. The Act also states that these women can only receive back pay and reinstatement in their old jobs. However, the 1991 Civil Rights Act, incorporated previous laws while also easing the burden on employees suing to prove job discrimination.
Within the new law, a successful litigant can collect monetary damages, as well as, request a jury trial, sue in conjunction with others who have received similar unfair treatment in the workplace, and request the courts to judge the case based on the reasonable woman standard as opposed to the reasonable man. The 1991 Act also places the burden of proof on the employer, rather than the employee. “Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and other recent court decisions have given women new clout in the workplace” (Morris 61).

An example of this clout is the intense publicity surrounding the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas hearing. Hill, a black law professor at the University of Oklahoma, electrified the nation when she charged that Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee, had sexually harassed her when she worked for him in the early 1980s. Hill testified before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee about her discomfort when Thomas insisted on describing pornographic movies and made sexual advances.
An all-white and all-male Senate sought to discredit Hill, some of who accused her of lying or being delusional, but her testimony elicited nationwide support. The Senate confirmed Thomas” actions were inappropriate, but Hill”s testimony was almost entirely disregarded. The hearing angered women, especially those who had suffered similar experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace, and it also empowered many others to come forward with similar allegations. “The furor that ensued was just the fuel need to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1991” (Stith 187).
In recent litigation, women have begun testing the extent of their employment rights beyond the rights guaranteed to them in the Civil Rights Acts. An example of this is a group of eight women employees of the Stroh Brewery Company in Detroit. These women charged that their employer had created a working environment that was hostile to women.
As part of their allegation, they pointed to sexually offensive commercials that Stroh”s aired featuring the Swedish bikini team, scantily clad young women with large breasts. The Stroh plaintiffs contended that the ads were proof that the company sanctions sexism. “The company has defended its ads as simple entertainment protected by the First Amendment”s guarantee of free speech” (Vilanch 7). The plaintiffs in the Stroh case won their lawsuit and created a landmark decision for challenges of this type, particularly due to the fact the courts must now decide based on the reasonable woman.
Although the presence of strong laws is powerful ammunition to fight to eliminate discrimination in the workplace, litigation is not the most effective solution to the problem. Women who experience workplace discrimination are often reluctant to file official complaints for a variety of reasons including; feelings of inadequacy, fear of reprisal, and fear of being labeled troublemakers. Some women also fear retaliation from their employers as well.
In regard to the latter, other women simply do not have the money to carry out a lawsuit that may take years to settle or reach court. In sexual harassment lawsuits, the prospect of going to trial is enough to scare off many women, particularly once they realize how vulnerable their credibility is in legal matters concerning sexual activity. “Many labor experts believe women are held back from jobs because of subtle sexual harassment. Only the concerted efforts of enlightened companies, not litigation, can eradicate this form of injustice” (Morrison 15).
One enlightened company, Du Pont, has made efforts to help women managers overcome the glass ceiling. Du Pont has established a staff position to focus on advancing the careers of promising women and minorities. “If a division is looking for the manager of affirmative action and upward mobility then Du Pont is the example to follow” (Gallagher 88). Such a staff position is needed to provide support, counseling, and advocacy for women who find their career advancement has stalled due to subtle discrimination.
Despite the efforts of some companies, gender diversity is still sorely lacking in Corporate America. A recent study revealed that of America”s 500 largest companies, women held only 10 percent of the top executive positions. “For all the bravado of the past decade, women in most organizations are not much further along. The glass ceiling has not shattered” (Himelstein 64).
Although some companies are diversifying their executive workforces, most companies prefer to initiate these diversity efforts on their own, rather than being forced into it by legislative quotas or affirmative action. For example, Coopers and Lybrand, whose all-male corporate management committee was confronted by its female employees last year, regarding the absence of women in management, preferred to resolve the situation themselves. At issue, was the fact that women only accounted for 8 percent of the firms” 1,300 partners and only 3 percent of the firm”s 70 regional managers.
The confrontation which occurred during a management meeting where it was revealed that gender myths about women”s performance as managers still persisted.
For instance, the male partners assumed that the women were reluctant to engage in business travel and informal business gatherings. As a result of the confrontation, Coopers and Lybrand initiated programs to address diversity issues. These programs included mentoring and formal training. “Coopers and Lybrand proclaimed that 30 percent of their new partners by the year 2000 would be women, up from 17 percent in 1999” (Glover 16).
Eliminating the glass ceiling requires zealous planning efforts by corporations that are committed to diversity. The first step involves setting goals. “A few companies are achieving success in the battle to get women into the executive suit. They have backed sound strategies with effort, money, and long term commitment” (Weiss 191). Various companies base their goals on census data, desiring their workforce to reflect the gender demographics of the surround region, while other companies eschew quotas and internal goals, but seek the same results, increased diversity.
Diversity goals can help but women into the pipeline through the hiring process. The presence of women in senior positions tends to attract women who hold similar aspirations. Once employed, women must receive the training that will allow them to move into the corporate ranks. For example, Colgate-Palmolive favors fast tracking its employees through cross training. Cross training exposes the employee to a variety of functions within the organization; the broad base of knowledge acquired is critical to success as a future manager.
The efforts that corporations are putting into diversifying their workforces is bearing fruit. An example is J.C. Pennys, which initiated a drive in 1988 to fill 1,000 management positions (created by the relocation of company headquarters) with qualified women. After setting numerical goals and establishing formal networking and mentoring programs. “Pennys was able to increase its percentage of senior managers who are women from less than 12 percent in 1990 to more than 35 percent by 1997” (WIBC 103).
The glass ceiling that prevents women from advancing to top positions will only be shattered by the combined efforts of political activists and the private sector. Strong legislation provides women with the power they need to litigate unfair employment practices. Private sector initiatives help create a climate that is supportive for women to develop their skills and make it to the top.
Women have made key victories, both in the political arena and in Corporate America. Thousands of women managers are in the pipeline and on the right track to assume their rightful places in the ranks of corporate executives. If current efforts bear fruit, the glass ceiling will no longer be a limiting factor for women of the 21st century.

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