“The glass escalator” is a metaphor typically used to describe how men in feminized workplaces rise through the ranks because of gender norms and gendered job expectations. For instance, men tend to be perceived as having stronger leadership qualities than women, and thus are fast-tracked into supervisor roles. This study used data from interviews with 32 women workers in the technology field to investigate whether the glass escalator applies to women in tech – a field notoriously dominated by men – and whether race has an impact. The study discovered that a better metaphor for white women in tech is a “glass step stool”: white women are encouraged to take on mid-level managerial positions, but continue to face barriers to achieving executive-level roles. Meanwhile, women of colour do not experience this step stool, and are forced to take deliberate steps, such as further education, to achieve advancement.
The metaphor of the glass escalator suggests that men in women-dominated occupations tend to move into positions of authority because they are, more than women, perceived as possessing traits desirable for leadership roles. The author of this study questioned whether this metaphor applies to women working in tech work, a field dominated by men. Although women experience barriers to advancement at work, managerial roles in technology require strong interpersonal skills. Interpersonal skills are a feminine-associated trait, and research has found that women in engineering tend to be steered towards the social aspects of their work. In contrast, engineering is a technical role and is masculine-associated. Thus, women in tech work may experience a glass escalator effect, because gender norms suggest that they would be more capable managers than engineers. The study also investigated what impact race had on women’s experiences, as prior research on women in STEM has not often focused on race and gender together.
The author conducted interviews with 32 women tech workers over the course of 18 months. Interviews focused on the women’s career paths, their experiences at work, and other career-related questions. Most worked for companies that produced computer hardware or software in tech hub cities in the United States, such as San Francisco. Thirteen participants were people of colour (six Asian and seven black or Latina). All participants except for two had at least a bachelor’s degree, eleven had a master’s, and seven had a PhD.
…women also decided to move into managerial positions to remove themselves from gendered hostility and poor work-family balance that they experienced in engineering culture.
The author discovered that white women participants experienced not a glass escalator, but a glass step stool. That is, several white women began their careers in technical career paths such as software engineering, but supervisors solicited them to take on middle manager roles due to their strong “people skills”. The women also decided to move into managerial positions to remove themselves from gendered hostility and poor work-family balance that they experienced in engineering culture. However, the move was a small step up. Firstly, there was no clear next step to higher-level leadership, as women with technical training were not represented in “C-level” roles in their companies. Secondly, becoming a manager meant a trade-off: the women were no longer developing the skills that could have allowed them to move back to a technical position, particularly considering how fast technology and its associated skills change.
In contrast to white women, women of colour had to specifically choose and work towards the jobs they wanted. Their supervisors did not identify them as having strong interpersonal skills nor encouraged them to move into management. Instead, women of colour were only identified for a position after they purposely received credentials or training for it. Moreover, some women of colour described feeling unwanted scrutiny and isolation at work, based on their race. In other words, only white women in the tech field were perceived as having managerial authority, and that authority was limited.
Moving women out of technical roles is not a solution for sexism in male-dominated fields—Although promoting women into mid-level managerial roles may seem like a solution for increasing gender diversity in leadership, this process does not transform masculine workplace cultures, and it does not improve representation of women in technical roles such as engineering. This is especially important in fields in which it is crucial to have diverse workers, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Rather than encouraging women to take on “social” roles that fit feminine norms, technology companies should facilitate inclusivity of women in all roles, including those that are highly masculinized.
Rather than encouraging women to take on “social” roles that fit feminine norms, technology companies should facilitate inclusivity of women in all roles, including those that are highly masculinized.
Stereotypically feminine norms often only apply to white women—This study demonstrates that jobs are not only gendered but also racialized: women of colour participants did not receive the same encouragement as white women to pursue managerial roles. This suggests that the feminine norm of having strong interpersonal skills only applied to white women. As tech companies aim to become more inclusive, it is important that they (1) recognize that the experiences of women of colour are fundamentally different from those of white women, and (2) centre rather than ignore these experiences.
Research brief prepared by: CARMINA RAVANERA
Escalator or Step Stool? Gendered Labor and Token Processes in Tech Work
Academy of Management Journal