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Glass Ceilings – Sticky Floors

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Published: Thu, 12 Oct 2017

The terms glass ceilings and sticky floors both refer to the experience of women in the labour market. More specifically they refer to the situation whereby women are not promoted in line with their male counterparts and where women’s wages are significantly less than men’s even though they may be doing jobs of equal value. Although some argue that this situation is changing and that women are closing the gap, there is still a significant difference between the male and female experience of the labour market where women almost always find themselves at a disadvantage. The causes of this situation are complex and involve both structural and social factors. The explanations for the persistence of inequality in the labour market include, among other factors, the failure of governments to address the issues of flexible working conditions and the closed culture and the influence of ‘old boys networks’ which prevail at the higher levels of many corporations. However it is not possible to determine one single factor which has contributed to the persistence of this inequality. Rather it is a combination of a myriad of factors which need to be addressed if women are to be given the recognition they deserve from their work in terms of increased status as well as monetary reward.

According to Van Kerm the ‘glass ceiling’ is the ‘invisible barrier that inhibits promotion opportunities for women (but not men) and prevents women from reaching top positions’ (2004, p1). Marsh et al describe the ‘glass ceiling’ effect as ‘the phenomenon whereby women are promoted into high status professions but are not making it to the top jobs even though they are as talented and able as the men who hold those positions.’ However a study by Booth et al in the late nineties seemed to contradict the notion of the ‘glass ceiling’. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, they found that full-time working women were more likely than men to be promoted. Significantly, Booth and colleagues found that whilst men and women seemed to have equal likelihood of being promoted, women were still more likely to find themselves at the bottom of the wage scale. They coined the term ‘sticky floors’ to describe this phenomenon.

In Booth et al’s study, they were surprised at the findings on wage levels, reasoning that equal pay legislation should limit the ability of firms to pay promoted women less than men (1999, p1). However, the model they used made a distinction between the initial pay rise on promotion and pay increases subsequent to that. They found, ‘women are just as likely to be promoted and receive similar wage increases directly upon promotion. However, promoted women gain fewer subsequent pay increases than men and therefore a lower average wage gain over a sample period. We use the term ‘sticky floors’ to describe this situation whereby women are promoted and receive a one-off wage increase but then find it hard to rise in wage scales after promotion.’ (1999, p2).

‘Glass ceilings’ and ‘sticky floors’ therefore refer to different but closely related topics which both come down to women being at a disadvantage in the labour market. How can this inequality be explained?

Many sociologists refer to the gendered division of labour, that is, ‘the division of work roles and tasks into those performed by men and those performed by women’ (Bilton et al 2002, p313). Bilton argues that this gendered division ‘still firmly benefits men to the detriment of women’ (2002, p313). Segregation takes place on two levels. Horizontal segregation refers to the way in which men and women are located in different sorts of industries and occupations. Women tend to be under-represented in the ‘primary’ sector (agriculture, mining, energy) and in the construction industry transport and manufacturing (with some exceptions.) On the other hand, they are over-represented in ‘service’ industries such as catering, the public sector etc (Taylor et al p135).

Vertical segregation refers to the way men and women are found at different job levels within each industry or occupational group- with women predominating at the lower end. For example, Rees found that whilst women constituted 60-70% of all teachers, only 16% of secondary school heads were female (1983, quoted in Taylor p135). Whilst vertical segregation has decreased somewhat since the early 80s, women are still under-represented in high status jobs. Compared to their male counterparts, they face far greater obstacles. Marsh et al argue that recruitment and promotion practices still tend to operate against women, even though equal opportunities legislation exists to prevent this happening (2000, p360). Women have to make more sacrifices than men to reach top positions, perhaps deciding not to have children. When women do have children, many organisations lack flexible working conditions and work-based crèches are rare. As Marsh et al also point out, newer work practices such as job sharing, flexi-time and career breaks are still not initiated by many companies. In addition, in many professions, the old boys network has been identified as an important way of learning about opportunities and actually being considered for particular positions. ‘As well as not being part of male networks that get people jobs, women may be excluded or feel alienated from male work-based cultures which are a crucial part of making contacts and gaining promotion in some organisations, professions and industries’ (Marsh et al 2000, p360).

Haralambos and Holborn (1995) outline some theoretical approaches to explaining gender inequalities in employment. Human capital theory argues that because women are more likely to abandon or interrupt their careers at an early age, they are considered of less value to employers. This theory is contested by Witz (amongst others). She points out that even women who work continuously without breaks end up in lower paid, lower status jobs. America is often cited as a country in which women have managed to break through the glass ceiling but in 1994 only 4% of senior executive posts were held by women. It has also been noted that where women do break through, they often tend to work in one of the ‘triple P’ departments- purchasing, publicity or personnel. (Bilton et al, 2002, p313)

Another theory advanced to explain inequality is the dual labour market theory. Barron and Norris (cited in Haralambos & Holborn, p620) argue that two labour markets exist alongside. The primary labour market is characterised by high pay, job security, good working conditions and favourable promotion prospects. The secondary labour market, where women are more likely to be found, consists of lower paid, less secure jobs with inferior conditions and fewer prospects. Women tend to stay in the secondary sector once they enter it. This theory focuses on the structures which limit women’s opportunities in the labour market, yet it cannot explain why women gain promotion less often than men even when they are doing the same jobs (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995, p620).

Research from the Department of Social Security in 2000, suggests that women are more likely to be caught in a low pay, no pay cycle and that a persistent gap existed between how much men and women earned (The Guardian, 20 June 2000). However, there have been more positive signs in recent years. In September 2004 a survey by the Chartered Management Institute found that women heading corporate departments earned more than their male counterparts. They also found that the number of women at this level had increased from less than a fifth in 2000 to more than a quarter in 2004. The institute concluded ‘the glass ceiling is giving way’ (The Guardian 15 September, 2004). Similarly, this year the NHS will have to pay out millions of pounds to female nurses in one trust (North Cumbria) after an employment tribunal found they had suffered pay discrimination since 1991. (The Guardian, 15 March, 2005) This can only be a good sign for the prospects of women gaining equal pay in the public services and elsewhere.

The position of women in the labour market is nowhere near equal to their male counterparts and yet there are positive signs that the playing field is becoming more level. Women still face hostility at the higher ends of professions and the position of women in the labour market is reflected by the lack of women in positions of influence in other areas, for example the judiciary and politics. Only when this situation is changed can society become more equal.


Bilton T, et al, 2002 Introductory Sociology Basingstoke, New York: Macmillan

Booth A, et al, 1999 ‘Glass Ceilings or Sticky Floors?’ accessed at www.cepr.org/pubs/dps/DP1965.asp

Carvel J, 2005 ‘NHS faces huge pay claims’ in The Guardian 15/03/2005

Carvel J, 2004 ‘Glass ceiling gives way’ in The Guardian 15/9/2004

Haralambos, Holborn, 1995 Sociology: Themes and Perspectives 4th Ed. London: Collins Educational

Marsh I, et al, 2000 Sociology: Making sense of society 2nd Ed. Essex: Prentice Hall

Rake K, 2000 ‘Men First’ in The Guardian 20/06/2000

Taylor P, et al, 1995 Sociology in Focus Bath: Causeway Press

Van Kerm P, 2004 ‘Glass Ceilings? Sticky Floors? Gender Differences in Wage Growth and Promotion’ Paper delivered at VXXXVIII International Conference- Applied Econometrics Association

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