Women in the world of business have long complained about barriers to their professional advancement. So have many minorities (and justly so). While there are laws that prevent discrimination with regard to job promotions, these career obstacles often are hard to prove, much less enforce. Many companies make it seem like the sky is the limit for all smart, hard-working employees but instead some of us bump up against an invisible obstruction designed to preserve the generally male-dominated executive status quo.
I’m referring, of course, to the “glass ceiling.” Nearly 40 years after the metaphor was coined in a 1978 speech by Marilyn Loden, author of the book, “Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys,” the glass ceiling remains firmly in place, discrimination laws aside. A 2017 survey by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org of 30,000 men and women employees indicates that while both genders want to be promoted in approximate percentages, women are 18 percent less likely on average to actually receive one. This gap is even more pronounced for women of color.
“Women fall behind early and lose ground with every step they take (in the workplace),” the study states. Since women are underrepresented in line roles at every level of the corporate pipeline, by the time they reach the level of a senior vice president, they hold a measly 21 percent of these positions. “Since the vast majority of CEOs come from line roles, this dramatically hurts women’s odds of reaching the very top,” the researchers comment.
This lack of advancement is especially staggering for women in technical roles. According to AnitaB.org, the representation of women technologists declines by 50% from entry to mid to senior and executive levels. At this rate, researchers maintain that it will take 100 years for women in technical and non-technical roles combined to reach parity with men in the C-suite!
What is most bothersome to me is the message the study sends to young women and girls about their chances of becoming business leaders—not tomorrow or next year but in this century! So, I’d like to share a remarkable story of a customer I met who has blown up the glass ceiling with grace and aplomb! Few women have gone as far as Kim McWaters, who began her career more than 30 years ago as a temporary switchboard operator at Universal Technical Institute and has served as the company’s CEO and chairwoman since 2003, overseeing more than 1,880 employees today. Universal Technical Institute is a publicly traded nationwide provider of technical education for students seeking careers as automotive, motorcycle and marine technicians—what used to be euphemistically considered “guy jobs,” but now include many women.
Kim recently shared her remarkable journey with me. The irony, if that’s the right word, is that she had no big dreams of someday running a big company. As a favor to her uncle, she took a part-time summer job to operate the switchboard at Universal Technical Institute. She was 20 years old, a single mother needing the income to feed her one-year old son. “What I learned as a receptionist is that I liked helping people solve problems,” Kim said. “My job was essentially to coordinate someone’s needs with someone else who could assist them.”
Most of these needs came from students and their families. Gradually, Kim learned who in the organization could best handle each caller’s specific issue. “In a matter of weeks, I became very familiar with the entire organization; I got to know each person’s functional area of technical expertise,” she said. “More importantly, I learned that a business is like a village; to succeed there must be close interdependence. Every single person in a company is important.”
The summer she learned this, Kim also found meaning in Universal Technical Institute’s purpose. “Every three weeks a new group of students came in,” she said. “These were people who weren’t particularly successful in the traditional academic setting. Most lacked self-confidence, walking in with their heads down. By the time they graduated, the transformation in them was astonishing. The reason was our world-class facilities and equipment and especially our people. Everyone here is committed to changing people’s lives through education.”
I asked Kim what she thought about the fact that so many women eventually collide with their organization’s glass ceiling, knowing she had successfully worked her way up the ranks at Universal Technical Institute from the switchboard through admissions, customer service, marketing, and operations before blasting through the glass ceiling to become CEO. “Shortly after I became president, I launched an initiative called Breakthrough Performance, where we brought every one of our 900 employees at the time offsite for three days and nights, stripped them of their titles, and asked them to act like consultants in helping us make the company better,” she said. “We empowered them beyond their titles to provide constructive solutions.”
Kim learned that this was how the company should always be run. “Every employee must have a voice and every voice must have equal weight, irrespective of the person’s role, gender, nationality, and so on,” she explained.
I also chatted with Kim about the 2016 Gallup study stating that women leaders were better than men when it came to engaging employees, resulting in lower absenteeism and turnover, and higher productivity and profits. Was this consistent with Kim’s experience as a leader? “I generally believe that women are more nurturing and empathetic (than men) and are better able to tap into others’ talents,” she replied. “Women have a different way of motivating people to accomplish their goals. On the other hand, I also feel that some women can be very crippling to other women in the workplace because they’re trying to survive in a male-created business world. That’s changing now.”
I asked Kim to elaborate. “For one thing, many women now realize they don’t need to program themselves to act like men to become successful business leaders,” she said. “The extreme male traits that have made men successful don’t necessarily work for us because we’re different. Women also are learning that their feelings and emotions are positive characteristics in motivating others in the workforce. We’re able to be successful leaders because of our many dimensions.”
I couldn’t agree more. Female qualities are equally needed to manage today’s highly diverse workforce. Young people of myriad nationalities and cultures are self-defining their sexuality and gender. Women must simply refuse to believe it will take more than a century for women to match the number of men in the C-suite. We cannot wait. As Kim has proven in her life and work, everyone can have a chance, but we need to create more of them for women and minorities in order to level the playing field.