VoxEU Column Labour Markets

What will it take to shatter the glass ceiling? Maybe re-modelling the basement

Females and minorities may be underrepresented at top jobs due to a sticky floor rather than a glass ceiling. This column says that if females and minorities face greater obstacles in signalling their abilities to employers early in their careers, then they may never have the opportunity to reach the top. Policies might try targeting the bottom of the job ladder.

What does it take to get ahead in the labour market? Intelligence, a strong work ethic, and enthusiasm are certainly crucial ingredients. But all of these traits only pay off to the extent that an individual can demonstrate them to those making hiring and promotion decisions. How are such traits revealed? Obviously, one means is information contained in resumes and applications, such as education, grade point average, job history, and the like. But as everyone who has ever been in a hiring or promotion position knows, such standardised information tells only a small fraction about each worker’s underlying skill set and potential.

Therefore, many more skill “signals” are used to evaluate each worker, such as the impression the worker makes during the interview process, the identity and sentiments of the worker’s references, and the content of any informal social interactions the decision maker may have had with the worker.

Signalling opportunities

The fact that workers’ skills are not immediately observable has some important implications when it comes to race, gender, and the job ladder. To take one example, the frequency with which individuals are able to emit skill signals to decision-makers may differ substantially across races and genders.

For instance, if superiors are primarily male, after-work football games might give young male workers more opportunities to interact and potentially impress their superiors than their female counterparts. Similarly, if superiors are primarily white, young white workers may have more opportunities to interact with their superiors in non-work settings such as church and social clubs.

Fewer opportunities for interaction may disadvantage females and minorities working to convince their superiors that they are ready to be promoted to a job with more responsibility.
A related issue is that decision-makers may also interpret similar skill signals differently by race or gender. For example, differences in communication styles across genders and races may cause white male interviewers or superiors to misunderstand or misread their conversations with new female or black workers.

A male superior might interpret quietness as a lack of confidence, while for many females that characteristic might reflect the exact opposite. Such interviewers and superiors may require more positive skill signals from relatively untested females and minorities than from observationally similar white males to be equally certain about their true skill level.
Similarly, if a decision-maker’s experience has shown him that, on average, new female and minority workers have been less likely than observationally similar white males to be qualified for higher level positions, then he might require more positive skill signals from females and minorities than from white males with equal underlying skills to be confident that such individuals can indeed do the higher level job.

Therefore, even given the same frequency of signalling opportunities, skilled females and minorities might need more time to convince their superiors to promote them, as their employers may require a greater amount of information before being convinced that such workers are skilled enough to move up the job ladder.

Delays on the job ladder, due to different signalling opportunities or thresholds, can have long-lasting impacts. Being promoted to the economy’s top jobs requires a successful track record of completing numerous tasks and duties at various positions of considerable responsibility.

If females and minorities experience relatively greater delays in getting out of entry- level jobs and into positions of greater responsibility, then very few of them will be able to develop the track record needed to be eligible for promotion to top jobs during their career. Hence, the under-representation of females and minorities at the top jobs in the economy might be due more to a sticky floor than a glass ceiling.

What could help alleviate such inequality of opportunities?

That suggests that affirmative action policies, as discussed on Vox by Juan Dolado and Manuel Bagues and Berta Esteve-Volart, might have some unintended consequences. For example, if an affirmative-action programme forced employers to promote females and minorities to top jobs even if they had slightly less experience than their white male counterparts, then employers may become more resistant to hiring and promoting females and minorities at early stages of the job ladder.

But the discussion above also suggests that policies aimed at increasing the frequency with which females and minorities are able to signal their skills to superiors and policies helping bridge communication differences between genders or races can potentially help equalise the lower rungs of the job ladder to facilitate more females and minorities rising to the top over the course of their careers.

What might such policies look like?

One example might be formal mentoring programmes for new workers from these underrepresented groups. Such programmes might give members of these groups more access to senior decision-makers, helping equalise the opportunities for communicating skill and potential across racial and gender groups.
Similarly, targeted recruiting and diversity training may help overcome some communication barriers that diminish capacity for members of underrepresented groups to reveal their true skill sets and qualifications to their superiors.


Bjerk, David (2008) ‘Glass Ceilings or Sticky Floors? Statistical Discrimination in a Dynamic Model of Hiring and PromotionEconomic Journal.
Bagues, Manuel F and Berta Esteve-Volart (2007), Gender equality legislation: will it work? VoxEU.org, 27 July 2007
Dolado, Juan (2007), Do Gender Equality Laws Help? VoxEU.org, 12 June 2007.

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