The Plexiglass Ceiling: A Stronger Impediment to Minority Advancement

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Many have heard of the proverbial glass ceiling and how the phrase is euphemistically used to describe an unfair system that prevents people (i.e., women and minorities) from advancing in their professions. The plexiglass ceiling describes the same type of unfair system with additional rigor used to prevent advancements-plexiglass is 17 times stronger than glass. While glass ceilings denote an inability to see the barriers, plexiglass ceilings are not as transparent. The victims of plexiglass ceiling see the barriers, but do not recognize a way around them.

Scholars, in past studies, have found that glass ceiling victimization correlates with gender (i.e., women, rather than men, face glass ceilings in their professions). While some researchers have not revealed findings supporting the notion that minority men experience the glass ceiling, other researchers concluded glass ceilings do affect minority males. A UCLA study found that women and minorities hold less than 5% of the managerial positions in the 1000 largest companies in the USA. The Department of Labor conducted a study which concluded that middle and senior level management positions in nearly 100 of the largest companies in the USA still reflect a shortfall of women and minorities. According to the Department of Labor, many companies persist with discriminatory practices. Discriminatory practices, however, are not limited to companies. Some women and minority men who work for the federal government also experience the effects of the glass/plexiglass ceiling.

Michelle, a minority contracts employee for the Army, applied for a leadership position and was selected as one of the two qualified finalists. The other finalist, a white gentleman, was chosen for and offered the position. However, the gentleman declined the position. Rather than offer the position to Michelle, the sole remaining qualified person, the selecting official issued a new job announcement seeking more applicants. Michelle was again selected as one of the two qualified finalists. The other finalist, a white gentleman, was chosen for, offered, and accepted the position. Michelle saw the plexiglass ceiling, but saw no viable way around it.

Charles, a minority logistics employee for the Navy, applied for a leadership position and was chosen as a finalist to take part in an interview process that would be used to select the new leader. Charles completed the interview process but was not chosen for the position. One of the other finalists, a white woman who also was not chosen, revealed that all of the white finalists, including the winner, were given a “mock” interview before the real interview (i.e., were allowed to hear the interview questions beforehand and practice their responses). Charles saw the plexiglass ceiling, but saw no viable way around it.

Jose, a minority engineering employee for the Army, worked hard to prepare for a future leadership position on his team. He led projects, mentored younger teammates, met all training requirements, and earned a doctorate in leadership. Jose’s leaders chose to create and fill the new leadership position in secret. Jose was introduced to the new leader, his Supervisor, and told to bring the new employee up-to-speed. Jose saw the plexiglass ceiling, but saw no viable way around it.

Michelle, Charles, and Jose were all victims of the plexiglass ceiling. The discriminatory practices designed to keep them from obtaining leadership positions were visible-not transparent as is usually the case with glass ceilings. For minorities, there has never really been a ceiling of glass-always plexiglass. Minorities have always recognized the discriminatory practices used to block advancements. Past court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education showed clear discriminatory practices were used to block the advancement of minorities. By allowing activities and behaviors that facilitate the continued existence of the glass and plexiglass ceilings, organizations nurture feelings of worthlessness and other inadequacies in the victims. In many cases, the victims of the plexiglass ceiling cease applying for leadership positions. The lack of minority applications is then used by organizations to explain the lack of diversity in organizational leadership roles.

The Plexiglass ceiling must be removed to allow organizations to synergistically reach their full potential. The best qualified applicants, regardless of their race or gender, should be allowed to rise to the top levels in the organization. The first step to removing the plexiglass ceiling is to understand why the ceiling exists.

One reason the glass and plexiglass ceilings exist, according to one author, is to avoid increases in challenges to white supremacy as a result of minorities moving into leadership and decision-making positions. Numerous other reasons have been given for the existence of the glass/plexiglass ceiling such as women do not really want challenging positions because they need to spend large amounts of time with their children, minorities are not properly mentored, and minorities seek affirmative action placements and are not really qualified for leadership positions. One study found that women in powerful positions are more likely to develop cancer. Presumably, blocking the advancement of women actually helps them. Although the reasons given seem senseless, they are starting points for critical thinking exercises that might reveal the irrationality of the aforementioned explanations and facilitate breaches in the glass and plexiglass ceilings.

Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, minorities were impeded by job announcements that read, “No blacks need apply.” Although the impediments of today are not as blatant, they exist on an institutional level-the plexiglass ceiling is real. Organizational interventions are necessary to eradicate plexiglass ceilings.

Organizational leaders need to show commitment for educating their managers and other employees on the importance of eliminating unfair barriers to advancement. Leaders should make sure their people understand that systemic barriers to the advancement of minorities and women result in the exclusion of valuable ideas and actions those who were victimized by the unfair impediments could have offered the organization. Leaders should institute and motivate their employees to voluntarily participate in mentorship programs to assist in developing employees. Leaders should also ensure their managers share information equally with employees. Concisely, managers should be provided the tools, training, and support to facilitate employee development and advancement and be held accountable for the advancement of a diverse group of employees. Leaders should also utilize effective monitoring systems to assess the impact of any interventions employed to remove glass and plexiglass ceilings.

The federal government recognized the need to influence organizational conduct concerning discriminatory impediments to professional advancements. In 1991, the Glass Ceiling Act, a part of the 1991 Civil Rights Act, was passed to study and report on the artificial barriers to advancement and the under-representation of minorities and women in leadership positions. The report revealed that although some progress had been made, efforts were still needed to address the impenetrable barriers that continue to deprive women and minorities of access to high-level positions. After the report was issued, the reporting team disbanded and the discriminatory practices continued. The government failed to properly respond to the reported results. Leadership’s inaction, in the face of discrimination, is perceived as tacit approval of the discriminatory practices. The inaction might explain the immortality of the glass/plexiglass ceiling. Until leaders actively promote fairness and equality, minorities and women will continue to be victimized by the effects of the plexiglass ceiling.