I think about diversity and inclusion a lot. I sit on a diversity advisory board for the XY Planning Network with our primary goal being to try to bring more women and people of color to the financial planning profession. I’m also really passionate about making sure my clients get paid what their worth, find opportunities and careers that are fulfilling to them and grow their wealth so they can give back to their communities and families. But it’s challenging. Every day I see examples where the glass ceiling still exists.
The glass ceiling is the invisible hurdle that prevents more women and people of color and LGBTQ from moving into the highest levels in a company. It’s generally created, sometimes unknowingly, by the underlying culture, prejudices and norms within corporate life.
And, it’s frustrating. We continue to see unequal representation in politics and corporate leadership today. Take, for example, Fortune 500 companies—even today, only 4.8% of their CEOs are women. Even at lower leadership levels, it can be discouraging to be the only person who looks like you on a team. It’s even more discouraging to find a workplace culture that doesn’t value advancement and makes it hard to find mentors and sponsors to help develop your career.
Here are six signs that you’ve reached the limits of your organization as well as a few ways to make attempts to address it before deciding to move on.
1. Leadership doesn’t respect or value you
Here’s one example. You’ve completed a major project recently and have big findings to share—but the meeting you’ve scheduled with your manager keeps getting put off.
It’s understandable if postponement happens once or twice; after all, work emergencies can happen anywhere and at any time. But done repeatedly, it’s a sign that leadership doesn’t fully respect or value you.
Having meetings delayed isn’t the only indication of this, though. It might be that you have to send repeated follow-up emails to management, or that your opinion isn’t given much weight when you do take part in meetings. Whatever the case, your efforts tend to go unrecognized.
But it’s not a matter of wanting an ego boost or needing to be appreciated—it’s simply that your contributions are undervalued, which can often translate into unrealized potential.
Ways to address it: Talk to your boss directly and say something like, I’ve noticed a pattern that meetings we have together keep getting canceled/rescheduled. I value open communication and regular check-ins. Could we adjust the time or frequency to make sure that our time together is valuable enough to keep on the schedule? The answer may help you decide whether it’s worth sticking around or if you should start a job hunt.
2. Management is looking outside to fill a position you’re qualified for
There’s a position you’ve been eyeing and know that you’re qualified for. Though you’ve expressed interest, the higher-ups say that the company is looking to recruit someone external.
Your boss may justify this decision by saying you’re needed in your current position or you’re just not the right fit. And yes, it’s possible that you’re just not the applicant your company is looking for. Still, it’s worth asking what specific skills and qualifications they want in an ideal candidate—from there, you can judge whether your skills truly align.
But, if management fails to give you concrete answers, they may simply not want you in the role for biased or discriminatory reasons.
Ways to address it: It’s also possible management doesn’t know you’re interested. Try this first before giving up, say something like, “I don’t think we’ve discussed my career path recently but this open position is something I’m qualified for and would be a chance to use/grow my skills in x. If I applied, do you think I’d be a serious candidate / have a chance at getting it?”
3. Your work bores you—but there’s no room for growth
Do you feel challenged at work? Maybe you’re restless from taking care of the same old tasks day after day, or are growing bored because things have become too easy. In any case, you may be in need of some change, like a promotion or new responsibilities.
However, if you find that opportunities to get ahead are few and far between, it could be a sign of poor professional development opportunities or that you’ve reached your organization’s limits. Career advancement is a natural part of growing in your job, but if there’s little chance of rising in the ranks, you’ve met a glass ceiling.
Ways to address it: Think up 2-3 ideas for special projects, job modifications, or even flexible work arrangements that might either keep you more engaged or make it more bearable. Share them with your boss directly and ask for a specific timeline for a decision. I.e., “Once you review these options, could we come to a decision in the next two months?”
4. There are subtle hints of discrimination in your workplace
It’s not always obvious, but there may be an undercurrent of racism or sexism at your office. The worst part: you or your coworkers may not even be aware, given that some biases are so rooted and normalized in everyday life.
So how might this kind of subtle discrimination look?
It could be gendered language like describing someone as being “whipped” or “wearing the pants,” a signal of outdated or misogynistic thinking. Or, it could be offensive comments about someone’s weight or appearance. Sometimes, people may even make remarks based on race or gender stereotypes and then brush them off as jokes.
If you observe this happening, pay attention to how others, especially your company’s leaders, react. If they laugh along or fail to call it out, they’re perpetuating a toxic and uncomfortable work culture.
Ways to address it: There should be zero tolerance for this kind of stuff. Make sure you document every incident and bring it to HR. You can also consider trying to correct the statement of the offender via non-violent communication strategies either in the moment or in private afterward.
5. Workplace nepotism, or favoritism, exists
It’s not uncommon for higher-ups to hire their friends and relatives or the people they went to school with. People like working with those they know and get along with, but this can unfortunately create more hurdles for other employees to jump over. It takes work for an organization to create a hiring and promoting culture that values diversity over “comfort.”
Favoritism is most obvious in how employees are treated, but it can also be discriminatory. For example, your company’s execs might consistently invite a select group of people—like only men—to meetings or events more than others. Or, in more casual contexts, it may be a male manager who enjoys drinks with other male employees after work, but not women.
This kind of preferential treatment might translate into certain employees receiving promotions or raises over others. Not only that, it perpetuates an exclusive boys’ club environment that women simply can’t get ahead in.
Ways to address it: Perhaps you’re the one to plan the next inclusive — all invited event to help start changing the culture. But be aware of taking on too much planning or “emotional labor” at work.
6. Your company’s leadership lacks diversity
Lastly, one telling sign of whether a glass ceiling exists at your company is its current management—specifically, how diverse it is.
Look around. How do your leaders’ demographics look compared to the rest of the organization? If a majority of your coworkers are female but nearly all of the executives are male, something’s off.
Unfortunately, many managers enjoy the status quo and are resistant to the idea of change. Of course, it’s worth noting that not all top male executives have an outdated perspective on running an organization. Some are willing allies, looking for ways to move the company in a better direction. However, if you find that these leaders are in the minority, change isn’t going to come easily.
Ways to address it: You might not be able to address it directly, but you can ask questions. Perhaps at an open townhall meeting you ask something like, “what steps is management taking to hire and retain a diverse workforce?” If you’re ever given the opportunity to present ideas, 1 to 1 mentorship programs typically work better than mandated diversity training.
Conclusion: Where to from here?
If creating a diverse and inclusive workforce had an easy solution, I wouldn’t be writing this. Not all of the aforementioned signs need to be apparent in order to signify you’ve reached the glass ceiling in your company. If you’ve tried a few strategies, it’s probably time to reevaluate your current role and consider your options for moving forward.
Though we often idealize breaking the glass ceiling, sometimes it’s simply not practical in your current role. As you navigate this for yourself, keep in mind that others are probably trying to navigate this too and you don’t have to address it in isolation. You can learn from each other via networking groups or one-on-one formal or informal mentorship. If you get to a place where you’ve figured out how some of this works for you, start sharing it with others! Always look for opportunities to mentor or sponsor others.
Even if you’re a white male reading this, being aware of these issues is the first step toward becoming an ally. You too can seek out opportunities to advise, sponsor, recommend and recruit diverse candidates in your field.
In my own experience, sometimes it’s not that a glass ceiling prevents us from moving forward, we’re qualified and we’re offered the roles. It’s that we’re too smart to put up with what goes into reaching the top because we desire more flexibility and freedom over our lives than what’s afforded to us in the male-dominated corporate culture. For me, I’ve found I can make a bigger difference by going out on my own, away from corporate life.
Depending on your talent and experience, you also may find that pursuing entrepreneurship, like starting a business, is a better option. That doesn’t mean you should bail immediately, though—instead, begin planning ahead to see if your own business idea can succeed on its own.