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Thought Leadership

'If the shoe does not fit, must we change the foot?'

As part of our International Women's Day content, our Thought Leadership piece this month discusses the notion of the 'Glass Ceiling', the legacy of management consultant Marilyn Loden.

17 Mar 2022

▼ In this article

The 'Glass Ceiling' and alternative routes  

The glass ceiling rhetoric reinforces the stigma and precedent that women struggle to achieve success in a male-built financial world. It is used to simultaneously glorify a woman’s success against all odds, whilst acknowledging and reinforcing a deep systematic flaw that usually filters out women from executive leadership positions. Empirical data has proven that increased gender diversity has positive impacts on internal corporate health and financial performance, yet little effort is being made to dismantle the glass ceiling. It is time for a strategy shift that focuses on paving and retaining alternative paths to top-level management for women to use, as the traditional male-built routes are inherently incompatible for furthering women’s careers. We must shift away from the glass ceiling which reinforces the idea of female success being uncommon and populate the newly created “alternative” routes that leverage difference and diversity.  

An alternative point of view

Without a clear, paved path to success, women often find their own way to the top, a move known as “breaking the glass ceiling.” This term was coined by management consultant Marylin Loden in 1978 at a time when she was told “that the advancement of women within middle management was "degrading the importance" of these positions.”i Since then, the glass ceiling has continued to be the glorifying rhetoric of women who successfully prevail through mid-management roles and break into executive leadership, whilst also reflecting the scarcity with which this happens. The glass ceiling is the prevention of female upward mobility within the workforce, due to gender discrimination, which results in a homogenous composition of top-level management dominated by men. The existing career paths, promotion criteria and organizational structure of many businesses are created by men, and therefore largely for men. For a woman, both the male-built system and the “traditional” career trajectory, are likely to be ill-suited, which is why successful women tend to have inspirational narratives on the alternative paths they took to the top. These stories are not all “smashing through ceilings” or adopting more “masculine” characteristics to “fit in,” but rather, serve as examples of women who play to their strengths and trailblaze new paths to the top.  

Despite efforts to rectify the gender imbalance at the highest levels of business, women’s abilities to view problems and strategies from different perspectives continue to be significantly undervalued, with empirical data proving that less diverse companies underperform in comparison to companies with higher representation of women among leadership teams. All forms of diversity at the top lead to stronger and more profitable businesses. Through this light, one can argue that lack of representation should be deemed a type of market failure. McKinsey found that companies with more than 30 percent women executives were more likely to outperform companies where this percentage ranged from 10 to 30. A substantial difference in likelihood of outperformance (48%)—separates the most from the least gender-diverse companies and similar findings were concluded when looking at culturally and ethnically diverse companies.  

Deep-rooted structural change in industry

Furthermore, the glass ceiling narrative calls attention to socially constructed gender-based obstacles women must overcome, which views a women's success through the plight of women, instead of focusing on the positive narrative of finding alternate paths with less resistance. As a metaphor, it exposes the deep-rooted operational inefficiency of a business or industry that, without a tangible structural change, will never be optimized. With the continued use of the phrase for over 40 years, it can be deduced that little progress has been made within companies to rectify this and to work towards eradicating gender, and other forms of discrimination.  

The projected growth of women in leadership roles in the financial services industry

The Female Lead 

In 2021, Deloitte research showed that the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms is 24% and is projected to grow to 28% by 2030—still below parityiii. This begs the question that if the traditional route of climbing the corporate ladder is not compatible with gender orientation, why are women continuously bringing sledgehammers to work, instead of prioritizing paving new paths for other women to follow? If the traditional core systems are incapable of change, regardless of empirical evidence showing the financial benefits of doing so, then women should rethink their career strategy. Moreover, in terms of profitability, a study has shown that companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on executive teams had a 21% increased likelihood of achieving above average profitability compared to companies in the fourth quartile. Even greater results were found for those with ethnic or cultural diversity, with top-quartile companies performing 33% better in terms of their profitability. Evidence demonstrates that the operational inefficiencies of the glass ceiling not only affect internal productivity, but also impact the financial wellbeing of a company.  

Number of women promoted to manager for every 100 men promoted, 2020

Another study by Mckinsey noted that “there is still a ‘broken rung’ at the first step up to a manager. Since 2016, we have seen the same trend: women are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men, and this makes it nearly impossible for companies to lay a foundation for sustained progress at more senior levels”. The irony lies in the statistics from 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic that revealed women in leadership positions provide increased levels of support and mentorship in comparison to their male counterparts.  

The evidence shows that although the organizations recognize a need for change, there are still large invisible structural barriers preventing it. To this day, the need for both a rhetorical and strategy shift, from glorifying the struggle of breaking the glass ceiling to one that normalizes female leadership by making efforts to pave alternative points of entry into the financial world, is still necessary. Women achieving what most white men have should not be groundbreaking but should instead trigger alarms for the importance of female-built paths up the corporate ladder, that recognize our differences and play to the many female strengths.  

An interview of nineteen women from Bain & Company identified the following as uniquely female strengths in the consulting workspace: 

  • Building relationships: “Women are generally calm and don’t possess a huge amount of ego upfront, which is helpful for building relationships with Main Street CEOs.” 
  • Investing in others: “Women are better at consensus building and care more about people and how they are feeling about their roles.” 
  • Reading people: “Women tend to be more empathetic and better listeners than their male counterparts, which makes them better at reading people.” 
  • Having a unique point of view 

Being a woman is not analogous with being a male, and the value within that diversity positively correlates to heightened business performance and continuityv. Furthermore, once in executive leadership, gender diversification often acts as a multiplier effect, with Deloitte finding for every woman added to C-level in an organization, three women rise to senior leadership positions.vi As more women rise to the top, and pave the roads for others to follow, the glass ceiling will be dismantled, and result in a flood of untapped human capital. Deloitte reported that “companies with inclusive talent practices in hiring, promotion, development, leadership, and team management generate up to 30% higher revenue per employee and greater profitability than their competitors." A report by BCG (Boston Consulting Group) had similar findings in a global study, as companies with above-average total diversity, measured as the average of six dimensions of diversity (migration, industry, career path, gender, education, age), had both 19% points higher innovation revenues and 9% points higher EBIT margins, on average.vii It is bewildering that even with empirical evidence, this glass ceiling and general exclusionary practice directly correlated to fewer economic gains, is still at play with no significant change in sight. 

Conclusion: Pave the non-traditional routes and dismantle the ceiling from above. 

Description automatically generatedMarylin Loden fears that the “glass ceiling” she identified as a systematic barrier to gender equality has now been normalized. It is a symbol to women that they must fight harder than their male counterparts for the same level of success, which reinforces gender discrimination within business, and identifies the operational inefficiencies that filter’s out women from succeeding in a system built for men. Although gender ratios in the workforce are evenly matched as careers begin, the imbalances reveal themselves when professionals progress upwards, which is where we must pave new paths. Last year, there were 41 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, of whom only two were black women. Although there is change in the right direction, it is not enough. Until there is significant organizational change, we must normalize women's successes and cement alternative routes for women to take, glorifying the diversity of strategy and dismantle the glass ceiling from the top-down. This applies not only to women but to all those who are marginalized by the current economic systems. It is not about shattering ceilings; it is about paving and taking alternative routes to the top so we can have increased representation and avenues of social and economic growth.  

“Think of your career as a jungle gym versus a ladder. The ladder implies you have to always be moving up to be progressing, but sometimes you must move over and around to find the right path up!” 


Loden, Marilyn. “100 Women: 'Why I Invented the Glass Ceiling Phrase'.” BBC News, BBC, 13 Dec. 2017,

Dixon-Fyle, Sundiatu, et al. “Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 25 Jan. 2022, https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/diversity-wins-how-inclusion-matters.

Rogish, Alison, et al. “Leadership, Representation, and Gender Equity in Financial Services.” Deloitte Insights, Deloitte, 3 Nov. 2021, https://www2.deloitte.com/xe/en/insights/industry/financial-services/women-in-the-finance-industry.html.

Lorenzo, Rocio, and Martin Reeves. “How and Where Diversity Drives Financial Performance.” Harvard Business Review, 16Sept. 2020, https://hbr.org/2018/01/how-and-where-diversity-drives-financial-performance.

Rogish, Alison, et al. “Leadership, Representation, and Gender Equity in Financial Services.” Deloitte Insights, Deloitte, 3 Nov. 2021, https://www2.deloitte.com/xe/en/insights/industry/financial-services/women-in-the-finance-industry.html.

Women in the Workplace 2021.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 28 Feb. 2022,


Emily Capon


Alexandra Murray-Tacon

Hong Kong