Blogs / 14 Apr 2023 7 min

‘Glass ceilings’ and ‘sticky floors’– why women are overworked and undervalued

By Shazma Ahmed, Shape Talent Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant

The good news is that the gender pay gap is narrowing. The bad news is that the pace at which we are going, it will take 2861 years to close it.The ‘glass ceiling’ and motherhood penalty, which prevent women from advancing their careers past a certain point, account for about 60% of this gap. The remaining 40% of the gap is attributable to the ‘sticky floor’ phenomenon, which keeps women stuck due to outdated gender stereotypes and discrimination2.

Let’s take a look at how glass ceilings and sticky floors create environments that leave us over two and a half centuries (and counting) to gender pay equality.

Women are treated and perceived differently when it comes to career progression

Even when women hold higher educational qualifications than men, they don’t see better pay outcomes3. Interestingly, overqualified women are considered by organisations as more committed to the organisation and therefore less likely to leave, while overqualified men are seen as a flight risk4. In fact, men with exceptional qualifications are considered 19% more likely to leave if a better opportunity presents itself, while women with exceptional qualifications are 20% more likely to stay in the organisation and therefore 26% more likely to be hired due to their loyalty5.

Workplace cultures create an impossible double bind for women

Women are expected to operate within a narrow range of gendered behaviours, men are not. With 54% of women worrying about how they come across in meetings and 56% worrying about the consequences of asking for a pay rise and being unsuccessful6, women are encouraged to assert themselves but are often penalised when they do.

Women are expected to play into societal expectations to get ahead

It doesn’t stop there, a study found that gaining influence and rising to the top of an organisation is easier for men than it is for women7. For men, competence and confidence were the main ingredients to gain influence. While for women this was not enough. Women were also expected to demonstrate gendered stereotypical expectations such as being caring, nurturing, comforting and showing a thoughtfulness for others as well as their responsibilities to the company. This adds an additional emotional labour that women are expected to engage in to get ahead.

Women’s choice of work and style more likely to be influenced by familial responsibilities

Women are more likely to consider non-wage benefits when considering a career opportunity; these include shorter commute times, part-time work and greater flexibility. These non-financial benefits are a prominent factor in women’s decision-making around their career choices, largely influenced by their family and care responsibilities that typically fall more heavily on women8.

Workplace cultures contribute to an impossible double burden for women

Despite around three quarters of women being in paid employment9, the expectations of who does the unpaid domestic and care work hasn’t changed. Women spend around 2.5 times more time on unpaid work than men10, this ‘double burden’ leaves women overworked, underpaid and facing a greater risk of burnout. This leads to 30% of women feeling inadequate at work and the same number feeling that if they pursue their career, they are not a good parent/carer11.

Women are assumed to be less ambitious, less capable, less committed to work

The fact that many organisations are more accommodating towards the needs of the women in their workplace is great, however there is still a perception of part-time and flexible work inferring a lack commitment to career posing risks of discriminatory practices such as being passed up on promotion, being considered less reliable or benevolent sexism; ‘she can’t take on this *career enhancing* project, she already has a lot on with raising her family.’ These conscious or unconscious biases are harmful and produce real negative consequences for women.

Biases and sexism are a daily battle for women

Corporate cultural norms and structural prejudice are preventing women from advancing in their careers at the same pace as their male counterparts. Two thirds of women experience harassment and microaggressions12. 23% of women do not feel they can communicate openly without being negatively labelled at work and 21% report that bullying and harassment are not dealt with appropriately13.

And then there’s the motherhood penalty

One of the stark outcomes of the ‘motherhood penalty’, is the increasing gender gap. The World Economic Forum found that women took a 7% wage cut per child, whereas this wasn’t the case for men. Couple this with an existing gender gap and you can see the cumulative impacts of having children14.

It is worse for women of colour

Women of colour experience these barriers more intensely and the impact of these is more extreme. For example, in the UK the pay gap between a white male and a woman of colour is up to 28%15 and while 6% of CEO’s in FTSE 100 companies are women, not a single one of them are a woman of colour. Further, the compounded racial stereotypes and at times cultural differences lead to women of colour feeling a greater impact of the assumptions around their commitment and ambitions as well as the gendered expectations and norms arising from their cultural background.

At its heart, the gender pay gap is simply discrimination – whether overt, or as is more often the case, subtle and unconscious. While efforts have been made to address discriminatory practices and policies, it isn’t about women breaking through glass ceilings, it’s about organisations and society removing them altogether and cleaning up the floors while we are at it.

Organisations can play a significant role in bringing about gender equity by identifying, addressing and helping to dismantle internal barriers to create inclusive cultures where all can thrive. Shape Talent offers a Six Step Model to facilitate the diagnosis of the barriers to women within organisations and a framework to address and dismantle the barriers by firstly creating a climate for change then enabling the change through targeted measures, debiasing of processes, practices and policies and providing structured development opportunity for women. If you’d like to speak with us to find out more, please get in touch.


Shazma Ahmed is an Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Consultant at Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.

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[2] Ciminelli, G., C. Schwellnus and B. Stadler (2021), “Sticky floors or glass ceilings? The role of human capital, working time flexibility and discrimination in the gender wage gap”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1668

[3] Ciminelli, G., C. Schwellnus and B. Stadler (2021), “Sticky floors or glass ceilings? The role of human capital, working time flexibility and discrimination in the gender wage gap”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1668

[4] Marianne Bertrand. The Glass Ceiling. Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics Working Paper No. 2018-38, 2017

[6] The three barriers preventing women from progressing in corporate UK today – Shape Talent

[7] Human Resource Management (2017) – Appearing self-confident and getting credit for it: Why it may be easier for men than women to gain influence at work

[8] (2021) – The gender pay gap and why it is still here

[9] OECD Development Centre, 2014. Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes

[10] The three barriers preventing women from progressing in corporate UK today – Shape Talent

[11] Women at work 2022 | Deloitte Global

[12] The three barriers preventing women from progressing in corporate UK today – Shape Talent

[13] (2019) – An economist explains why women get paid less

[14] The Fawcett Society (2021) – The Pay and Progression of Women of Colour Literature Review