In the News

You Should Know: The Glass Ceiling

For many women, climbing to the top of an organizational hierarchy can prove difficult, blocked by a proverbial barrier. And it’s not necessarily for lack of want or effort. This barrier is unseen, bolstered by age-old stereotypes and other factors, and it can prevent women from reaching the higher rungs of the corporate ladder.

This is called the glass ceiling, and the term has been commonly used to explain why women and minorities haven’t been able to reach C-suite positions at the same level as their male counterparts. While women make up about 58 percent of the national workforce, there were just 25 female CEOs on 2018’s Fortune 500 list — 5 percent. This comes after there was an all-time high of 32 CEOs on 2017’s list. While women are entering upper management positions more than ever, progress has been slow. A recent study by McKinsey and Co. shows women, women of color and men of color are largely underrepresented in leadership positions while white men make up the majority.

There are many factors in play when it comes to the glass ceiling: prejudice, the fact that women are more likely to step away from work to start a family, discrimination and more. Minority men and women, who are also historically marginalized groups, also see the effects of the glass ceiling.

Still relevant today

The origin of the glass ceiling term stems back to the feminist movements in the 1970s and ’80s. As women were entering the business workforce and leadership in droves, they still weren’t cracking into the upper echelon of companies. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary cites the beginning of the phrase as 1984 but concedes that’s only when the phrase was first printed. The Washington Post found the original person who coined the phrase, Marilyn Loden, who said it during a panel at the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York.

Little did she know the term would be just as relevant today, 40 years later.

What can women and organizations do?

Much like the elusive $1 million mark for female business owners, confidence is a key factory in breaking the barrier. Studies show women are more likely to underestimate their abilities. Confidence can be one of the biggest factors when it comes to promotions and management, so being confident in one’s abilities can go a long way. 

On the organizational side, companies should implement comprehensive and expansive maternal and paternal leave policies, ensuring women and their significant others can start families without much trouble. Allow flexible hours, if possible, to avoid sending female employees on the “mommy track,” which can significantly hinder their ability to rise in an organization.

Organizations can also implement women-specific mentoring programs. According to an Edward Jones study, 56 percent of women cite the lack of mentorship or a defined career path as the top factor keeping them from advancing professionally. Mentorship helps women learn valuable skills, but it can also help women receive the break and connections needed to move up.

Companies should also set goals and benchmarks for hiring practices. Every organization should strive to have a 50-50 split of men and women. This should also be a goal for minorities. It isn’t just a moral obligation. In fact, studies show diversity among decision-makers leads to better results and revenues.

Last of all, and maybe most important, education is key. Ensuring hiring managers and employees are aware of the struggles women sometimes face will lead to a fairer and more balanced organization.

Kathryn Towner grows into entrepreneurship after career in sales

Kathryn TownerKathryn Towner, owner and president of WinCommunications, was already a business owner of sorts before going out on her own.

She worked at McGraw-Hill, a textbook publishing and sales company, in her first job after graduating from Iowa State University in 1986. While Towner was technically an employee of the company, working in outside sales, she was largely on her own, dedicated to her territory and clients — a mindset and skill set closely resembling those of a business owner.  

“If you look at what I did in my first job, I was very independent,” Towner said. “My boss was always out of the state somewhere, and I managed my territory as if I owned it. So you could say that I was always an entrepreneur. It had those elements, so I wasn’t caught off guard.”

In the mid-1990s, Towner’s husband, Greg Goaley, started an internet marketing company, right before the internet boom of the late ’90s and early 2000s. After the turn of the century, Towner was faced with a tough decision. McGraw-Hill rearranged, and part of that adjustment would be moving Towner to Omaha, Nebraska. With children and a life planted in central Iowa, moving wasn’t part of the family’s plan. She loved her job — at that point, she had been with the company for 15 years — but it was time to move on.

So in 2001, Towner joined her husband at WinCommunications. She wanted to add something new to the company, rather than work for Goaley — “I wanted to add my own revenue stream,” Towner said. She spent hours teaching herself proper email marketing, which was just coming to the forefront at the time, and built up another part of the company.

Towner and Goaley operated their own slices of the businesses separately, but always worked together it came to sales leads or decision-making.

“The biggest challenge for me [being an entrepreneur] was just wearing all hats,” Towner said. “When you work for yourself and are making your own decisions, you remember fondly the times when someone was telling you what to do next. That’s a big challenge.”

As Towner and her husband gained a better understanding their strengths over the next five years, they started to work more collaboratively. Towner was the programming and logistics-minded person. Goaley was more creative. Towner describes the dynamic as Goaley being a Mac computer and herself being a PC.

Being a fully self-employed family, there was also the necessary collaboration of parenting. Towner and Goaley raised two sons, both athletes, always balancing work, family and plenty of Dowling Catholic High School football. At the same time, Towner and Goaley were fully dedicated to managing and broadening the business.

About a decade later, in 2015, Towner faced perhaps her biggest and most painful challenge. Goaley fell ill and died in December of that year. Towner was tasked with running the business herself.

“It was challenging,” she said. “We raised our kids, got them through high school and put them in college. Then he was sick and we lost him. I really dedicated myself to making this work. It was the business he started, and I wanted to build on the legacy he left.”

Towner found solace in her fellow NAWBO Iowa members, who helped her navigate the world of business ownership without a partner. She originally joined NAWBO Iowa in 2001, but she leaned on the members more than ever after Goaley’s death.

“At NAWBO, you can literally call up anyone and have a conversation,” Towner said. “Sometimes you miss that accountability aspect when you’re on your own, but when you call someone else who may be going through the same thing, it motivates you.”

Towner is now co-president of the organization along with Kendra Erkamaa. Towner said there is a bit of a give-back factor after all the help NAWBO Iowa has given her. But even more than 15 years after she joined the organization, Towner is still gaining valuable skills, resources and networking opportunities from her peers.

“There is a give-back motive,” she said. “At the same time, I’m still gaining. I want to help our members connect and stay engaged. And I always encourage members to get on the phone and just call another member. It’s been so worth it for me over the years.”