From Sticky Floor to Glass Ceiling: The Ambitious Woman’s Pocket Dictionary

From Sticky Floor to Glass Ceiling: The Ambitious Woman’s Pocket Dictionary

Glass ceiling, glass cliff, sticky floor, broken rung: these metaphors must sound familiar to you. Maybe more than you’d like… Indeed, they refer to concepts that illustrate issues that women face in the professional world and that prevent them from fully achieving their ambitions. Here’s a quick rundown of these expressions that are harmful to women from day one of their arduous climb.

Sticky floor and broken rung: facing an impossible climb

According to a Belgian study published in 2016 in which 1,200 fictitious job applications (from men and women with 4 to 5 years of professional experience) were analyzed, women were 33% less likely than men to be called to interview for a job that implied a promotion… in early career! This is what’s known as the sticky floor: too high a ratio of women stay “stuck” in entry-level roles within their organizations, without having as many opportunities for advancement as their male counterparts, despite the quality of their CV. The kicker? The women who do succeed in being promoted are paid less than the men. Sadly, the salary gap associated with the sticky floor is not just an entry-level issue: this gap follows women throughout their careers, few as they are who manage to ascend…

And for women who persist in trying to move up? Beware the broken rung!

This is possibly the greatest obstacle that women must face when the time comes to land management and executive positions. According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2020 report, for every hundred men promoted to a management position, only 85 women are promoted. The gap gets wider for Latinas (71) or for Black women (58).

The infamous glass ceiling, the ultimate obstacle

Likely one of the best-known expressions when talking about women being unable to reach high-level positions, the glass ceiling remains a challenge in many milieus like business, technology, politics, and even film. The concept refers to the fact that in far too many hierarchies, the higher levels are inaccessible to certain categories of people, which often include women.

Fortunately, numerous women have succeeded in shattering the glass ceiling and continue to inspire the many others who refuse to give up. Just think of Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of colour to hold the American vice-presidency. In Europe, many women have pulled off the feat of breaking through: Christine Lagarde was named President of the Central European Bank in 2019, and Ilham Kadri is CEO of Solvay. In the arts, Aretha Franklin was the first woman to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Respect! In Canada, Sophie Brochu is the first woman to head Quebec’s largest crown corporation, Hydro-Québec. Despite all this, executive positions are still mainly held by men. White men. Indeed, in 2021 in Canada, women hold 36% of senior management positions. In France, women account for only 22% of executives for companies in the SBF 120, a French stock-market index.

In the 2020 Fortune 500 CEO ranking of the top American companies, only 37 had female CEOs. A very minor improvement compared to 24 in 2018, and 33 in 2019. 

The glass cliff: righting a sinking ship

Marissa Mayer, called in to rescue Yahoo! in 2012. Mary Barra, owner of General Motors, taking the helm of the auto manufacturer mid-crisis. Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard, having to pull the American multinational out of a major crisis upon her arrival.

These are a few examples of the “glass cliff”, as explained by Manon Tremblay, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, in a Le Devoir newspaper article. She describes the phenomenon as the fact that “women become leaders when parties are going under”. This principle is far from being limited to politics. It is also seen in business, the arts, and many other spheres.

The author of numerous books on the role of women in politics, Manon Tremblay confirms in the same article that “since nobody wants to steer a sinking ship, the competition is less fierce, which gives women a better chance.” She also explains that, in the collective imagination, women are seen as being more effective in times of crisis and having a greater capacity to care for those around them who are not doing well. Some awfully nice virtues… that threaten women’s credibility, because the margin for error is much smaller for women who must right a sinking ship.

Shattering the glass ceiling and repairing the broken rung, one action at a time

Women, men, managers, or life partners, each one has a role to play and can contribute to changing things for ambitious women, our organizations, and our society. We are proposing 15 Actions to Take for the Sake of Female Ambition. Ready?

Follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our newsletter for all of the latest contents.

Author profile

Gabrielle Brassard Lecours


Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours has written for various Quebec media organizations and teaches journalism at Concordia University. She is also Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of digital media outlet Ricochet and President of the Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec.