Effective Leaders and the Glass Ceiling

By Mark Graybill

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Effective leaders actively work to break the glass ceiling.

For those who are not familiar with the term glass ceiling, it is a metaphor for the unseen but stubborn barrier preventing women from reaching the upper echelons of corporate America.

The glass ceiling is an interesting concept, and the book that introduced it was one key reason why I ended up on my current academic path. The book does well to reveal the existence, but not so well explain why.

Without an accurate explanation of the problem, solutions come from little more than luck.

A better explanation for such issues as the Glass Ceiling is offered by Sondra Thiederman in her book 7 Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace.

The gist of the message here is that effective leaders do not have the luxury of the easy road of bias.

The Problem with Problem-Solving

To solve a problem, you’d think the best possible understanding of the problem would naturally come first.

All those experts out there who were hired, appointed, or elected to solve problems should certainly endeavor to understand the problems before they push for a solution. At least, we’d hope so.

So many problems remain for generations despite efforts to solve them, and more often than we realize, problems get worse.

Solutions are then forever doomed to the narrow-mindedness that false dilemmas induce.

Activity Traps vs. Effective Leaders

Those who work in an industry to solve social problems don’t really understand. They often pass on a legacy of activity traps that have little impact on solving the problems.

The cause is indeed noble, and achieving its objectives is critical for our society to evolve. Unfortunately, serving a cause doesn’t mean one is helping to solve anything.

Effective leaders are effective problem solvers, and so they choose effective solutions, not popular ones – even if they risk criticism or even exclusion by peers.

What this means for the glass ceiling is leaders must understand the bias that creates it and strive to unravel the bias – first and foremost, within themselves.

It is thus critical to understand the problem accurately in the first place. But how does one do this?


Consider the following example. Brad is the VP of a department in a small to medium-sized company, and he tries hard to be an effective leader.

He strives to be fair and objective while also developing trust and rapport with his direct reports.

One way he develops rapport is through regular evening social events where he can get to know his team better and them. He has four male managers and one female manager, Kelly.

All the male managers religiously attend Brad’s social events. However, Kelly has yet to attend even one social event. She is a mother, and her duties at home are almost as demanding as at the office.

Although her husband shares the workload at home, it seems there is always a game, play, concert or meeting that falls on the same night as one of Brad’s social events. It also doesn’t help that Brad chooses activities she has little interest in.

As rapport develops more between Brad and his male managers, due to them becoming accustomed to and thus comfortable with each other, Brad unknowingly develops preferences for his male managers with the good intention of building trust and rapport.

Spur of the moment invites to coffee breaks start to occur when he’s around his male managers.

During those ad-hoc social encounters, they arouse topics, sometimes controversial or deep topics, and they leave feeling they are on the same wavelength.

But he never invites Kelly. He doesn’t consciously exclude her; it’s just those spontaneous thoughts do not occur when he’s around Kelly.

Primal Brain Leader

Brad and his male managers have become quite accustomed to and thus comfortable with each other in the absence of the female manager. Add behavioral similarities and topics men tend to be uncomfortable discussing around women, and you have a recipe for bias.

Brad soon learns the line between developing rapport and developing bias is not so easy to distinguish.

Brad is losing his effectiveness as a leader because his thoughts, actions, and decisions are becoming less intentional and more automatic.

Brad is becoming the antithesis of effective leadership – he is becoming a primal brain leader.

A primal brain leader regards direct reports from the part of the brain where perception and preferences are automatic. This part of the brain is where most bias originates.

A primal brain leader operates throughout the day too much from this more primitive part of the brain rather than conscious intent.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to see this before it happens. The reason is it is natural for us to rationalize after the fact, perceptions, and decisions stemming from the primal brain – that one psychologist referred to as the Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail. The Arbinger Institute refers to this as self-deception.

Effective leaders work hard to avoid common pitfalls, such as favoritism, letting direct reports get too close, and leading a direct report to believe they are favored.


Brad learns of a VP position to open up in the near future, and Brad’s Executive VP wants to promote one of Brad’s managers to the position. Brad’s first thoughts are about Gary, whom he’s known for many years, and Brad knows Gary’s abilities and strong work ethic very well.

Brad prefers Gary and would feel more comfortable being Gary’s peer. But Brad is no rookie VP, either. He realizes that he cannot let his personal preferences dictate whom he sponsors.

He must choose who he sponsors without bias, and his decision should be in the best interest of the company.

He now faces the dilemma where he has too much subjectivity in his knowledge of his direct reports and is finding it difficult to be objective.

Brad decides to elicit from his boss the top job competencies for the new VP position. From those requirements, he develops objective criteria he can measure against experience and education.

He then has a meeting with all of his managers, telling them about the position and letting them know in private if they are interested.

After the meeting, all his male managers show up in his office, submitting their candidacy for the position. Kelly seeing the “boys meeting,” decided to come back when Brad was alone. After all, she does have work to do.

Brad saw her head toward his office, then turned to go to her own office. After his male managers returned to their offices, he went to Kelly’s office and asked her if she was interested.

Kelly doesn’t seem to exhibit the same enthusiastic interest as his male managers, but he realizes he should not assume her level of interest simply because she behaves differently than his male managers.

He tells her he thinks she is a great manager and that it would be a great opportunity for her.

The Choice

Later that week, Brad called all his managers to a meeting and informed them of his choice of whom he would sponsor and mentor. He tells them he laid out all criteria against their performance reviews, experience, and education and training.

That process revealed Kelly’s qualifications and potential were at the top of the list. After he told them he was sponsoring Kelly, you could hear a pin drop.

There was total silence and solemn facial expressions among the men, except for Gary. He was angry, as evidenced by his getting up and leaving the meeting.

Gary later expressed his displeasure with Brad’s decision and even accused him of ‘reverse discrimination. Gary ended up leaving the company and never spoke to Brad again.

Kelly did very well with the mentoring and performed exceptionally well. After Kelly had been VP for almost a year, when Brad’s EVP was looking to train his successor, he chose to sponsor Kelly because she outperformed Brad.

Brad would have preferred to be chosen, but he was also not surprised. He saw the potential in Kelly but almost missed it due to his own bias.

Sponsoring and Mentoring

He ended the evening social events the day he told his managers whom he’d sponsor. Later he opted to follow Kelly’s lead and develop rapport through mandatory meetings at work and offsite retreats during the business day.

Brad also adopted Kelly’s practice of sponsoring and mentoring all of his managers so that each of them knew exactly where they stood competency-wise on any given day.

Based on objective criteria, each manager knew their weaknesses and strengths and their progress in their development plans.

A year after accepting the EVP position, Kelly was chosen by the board to be CEO, and she earned CEO of the year in their industry during her first year in office. Brad could easily have strengthened the glass ceiling at his company by just going with what felt comfortable.

But he, fortunately, had just enough training and conscience to do the right thing. Consequently, his cracking of the glass ceiling led to shattering it at that company.

Thanks to Brad, his company got a superstar CEO who led their company to landmark performance.

The Essence of Effective Leadership

The end result of one decision vs. another can have enormous differences for an organization in the long run.

The essence of effective leadership is making the best decision simply because it is the best decision.

And the right individual should get the chance over those individuals one may be more comfortable with.

Has the Glass Ceiling Affected You?

If you have ideas about the glass ceiling that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Mark Graybill
Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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