The Glass Ceiling

The term ‘glass ceiling’ is generally used in situations where women’s progress or promotion is hindered in organisations due to the barriers of tradition or discrimination. This term is also used when minorities face similar situations. Under the category of ‘minorities’, the general understanding is that they are people who may be socio-economically backward, belong to a minority race, religion, community, caste etc. Another category that is not considered ‘minority’ is that of talented individuals. Yes, sometimes a person gets discriminated against or is not accepted because he/she is more privileged, more talented, more beautiful, more capable, more gifted than the majority. The concept of ‘glass ceiling’ is applicable to this category as well. Often one finds a beautiful or attractive person ignored, an intelligent one isolated, the talented one sidelined and such similar treatment to people who are better than the others or more gifted. This situation applies in almost all walks of life and is quite common in organisations - though not as easily discernible. Given that in any organisation the outstanding or high performers constitute 10-20%, average performers or mediocre 60-70% and the rest 10-20% below average performers, it is evident that the majority belong to the average and below average category. It is therefore likely they often dominate and influence the culture of an organisation.

This usually results in two situations - one is the ostracism of this ‘minority’ by the majority. The reasons may have to do something with the way humans are wired. We always tend to like people who are like us, have similar traits, mannerisms, similar likes and dislikes, and are equal or a notch below us in talent, physical appearance and capability. Those better than us are perceived as a threat. This is more so when the person is our peer or colleague and is someone who we are likely to be compared with. The reasons can be envy, rivalry, competition, and insecurity, and may also be nepotism. Influential clusters of the majority cohort may try every trick in the book to ensure this ‘minority’ is not accepted and not given opportunities that will bring accolades and recognition to them. A few insecure employees at leadership level too consider bright talented subordinates a threat. Besides keeping these talented employees away from important assignments that can also sabotage their growth and development.

The other situation is the non recognition of achievements of this cohort. While everyone is ready to applaud the small achievements of the average or the under performers, the greater achievements of this ‘minority’ of talented people get less attention and recognition. In a way, their achievements are taken for granted and the general mentality is, they do not need appreciation and encouragement as from them superior performance is expected.

This kind of culture in organisation will impact the organisational performance because the talented employees will be demotivated and will not contribute as per their ability which will result in under-utilisation of their talent. Moreover, these people without challenging assignments and recognition will get frustrated and ultimately leave, resulting in great loss to the organisation. Organisations must look into these aspects and design systems and processes that ensures such discrimination does not occur. Organisations must realise that more important than punishing the under-performers is recognising and rewarding the performers.Good systems that recognise talent and are objective and minimise biases and subjectivity is the key to ensure that all employees contribute to the best of their ability.

There have been arguments that real talent finds a way and no one can stop the talented from getting recognition. And, therefore, we can advise these individuals to believe in themselves, not lower standards to fit in with others, not get affected by people’s opinion and give up. Yes, this works for people who apart from being gifted are also endowed with qualities of grit and determination or favourable circumstances or are blessed with a strong support system. But often, the gifted may not come with the complete package. Therefore, the need to break this ‘glass ceiling’. The applause has to be equally loud for all.

by Vandana Madhavkumar