How to break the glass ceiling, according to a former NU professor

    “Perfect should not be the enemy of the good.”

    This was how Professor Roberto Fernandez began his talk, titled "Reflections of the Glass Ceiling." A professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a former professor at Northwestern, Fernandez has studied the Glass Ceiling extensively. According to the US Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, the glass ceiling "is the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”

    Because the “glass” aspect of this term indicates that barriers are hidden, Dr. Fernandez remarked on how there is an overdetermination phenomena occurring with respect to the Glass Ceiling – in other words, too many theories predict the same outcome. In short, the causes of the glass ceiling come down to three factors: demand side (employers), supply side (employees) and systemic (societal).

    When men and women perform the same job, the earnings gap disappears, but Fernandez said the problem is that men and women rarely do the same job. To determine what barriers lead to the glass ceiling, Dr. Fernandez jokingly described his research as a case of finding out “Who done it?”

    To attempt to answer this question, imagine an organization as a series of tubs. Each tub represents an individual component of the organization's hierarchy, and as such, the amount of water in each tub decreases as one moves up the hierarchal chain. The amount of water in each tub, or the number of workers, is determined by three factors: internal promotions, external hirings and resignations/firings. These movements of human capital occur at the “valves” of the organization, which Dr. Fernandez elaborates as the evaluation points in the “Who done it” dilemma.

    Counter-intuitive to one’s expectations, Fernandez's recent research shows that network recruiting has actually seen a decrease in gender segregation. In other words, as long as more underrepresented group members are referred than overrepresented groups, there will be a diminishing in the Glass Ceiling in hierarchical organizational structures.

    Instead of networks that often rely on sociocultural privilege, and therefore perpetuate gender inequality and segregation, Dr. Fernandez’s research shows that just the opposite occurs. In terms of improving representation in organizations, this is a potentially revolutionary finding in how networks are able to establish themselves as mechanisms to counter the glass ceiling.

    As Dr. Fernandez puts it, this may not be E = mc^2, but it has the potential to change the way organizations establish better mechanisms for representation.


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