The ‘Sticky Floor’ Revisited

Woman with portfolioBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

Do women unintentionally hold themselves back in their careers? The question has been up for debate for years, with leadership experts identifying self-defeating or self-limiting actions as the “sticky floor.”

Author Rebecca Shambaugh said in her 2007 book It’s Not a Glass Ceiling—It’s a Sticky Floor:

“I see women holding themselves back more than society ever could. And they usually do it to themselves quite unknowingly. When I see women capable of executive suite leadership mired in middle management, I don’t look for the glass ceiling anymore. Instead, I look for a sticky floor.”

The sticky floor phenomenon has been variously described as women’s self-imposed career blocks, corporate barriers to women’s promotion, and other middle-management bottlenecks that keep women stuck near the bottom half of the ladder. Not surprisingly, research has shown that the promotion rates for all levels of white men throughout their careers were higher than white and minority women. A large-scale study of more than 22,000 employees revealed that white men were 4.5 percentage points more likely to be promoted at any level than white women, and 16.1 percentage points more likely than minority women.

Yet, many experts take issue with the suggestion that women should be held responsible for their own failure to advance. “Saying women are responsible for holding themselves back lets off the hook the boy’s club of corporate executives who make them crazy, only to point their fingers and say, ‘See? That’s why we can’t promote them,’” says Mitchell D. Weiss, an adjunct professor of finance at the University of Hartford’s Barney School of Business.

Kathy Noecker, a member of the executive committee and management board of law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, describes the sticky floor as a “both-and” situation. “I have seen many women not seek the next big case, take on a key role with an important client, or assume a leadership opportunity because of the sticky floor phenomenon,” says Noecker. “They may be fearful of failure, presume they can’t handle the time commitments, or simply be unaware that they should be advocating for themselves and their careers.” However, she adds that these situations may be closely intertwined with the glass ceiling issue: “Often, organizations favor, and women only see, a ‘male’ model of success.”

Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, the same questions remain: why does the sticky floor still exist, and what can we do about it? The Glass Hammer spoke with Shambaugh and other experts about what actions women should take if they find themselves glued to a sticky floor, and what companies can do to facilitate women’s corporate ascent.

Advice for Women

While women can’t expect to single–handedly alter broad social views or traditional culture obstacles, they can learn from their mistakes and make changes within themselves to try to limit the impact of the sticky floor, suggests Shambaugh. “A sticky floor is better to have than a glass ceiling because you can pull yourself free of the sticky floor, or see it before you get stuck,” she says.

Shambaugh has identified two key issues women face when it comes to self-limiting behaviors and beliefs: false assumptions and lack of information. “Many women find out as I did that many of our assumptions are illusions,” she says. “If you don’t step out of your comfort zone to challenge your points of view and behaviors, you may be your own greatest obstacle to reaching fulfillment.”

She suggests that the most important way to avoid or get off a sticky floor is to increase your own self-awareness by asking yourself what you are doing or not doing that might be holding you back. To that end, she offers the following tips:

  • Look inward. Realize and accept that you are stuck, and be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Know your values and set goals that support those values. Be true to yourself.
  • Have a plan. Create a career–life plan to provide focus and accountability, and then share your plan with others for their input. Be willing to reach out and ask for help. Build and capitalize on your own Board of Directors.
  • Don’t let fears stop you. When you feel fear coming on, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Address your fears and walk through them to strengthen your own inner confidence. This can enable you to take those next steps to achieve your greatest leadership potential.

Corporate Commitment

While women are on the front lines when it comes to navigating their own ascent, the importance of the organization and its top leadership can’t be underestimated.

In her latest book, Make Room for Her, Shambaugh suggests ways that companies can use a systematic approach – which she terms “integrated leadership” – to create a culture that advances more women to senior leadership:

  1. Build and communicate your business case. Identify the business case that is most relevant and compelling for your organization and circumstances, and then link it to leaders’ goals so that the process moves beyond conversation to intentional action. Executives should talk about the business case frequently so that it becomes part of the corporate culture.
  2. Create a corporate culture that promotes inclusion, risk taking, and flexibility. Develop and implement a framework for advancing women and minorities, and encourage accountability by linking it to business outcomes. Reward people for taking prudent risks, even if they aren’t 100 percent successful in their efforts. Nurture an environment of flexibility that allows people to integrate work demands with personal priorities.
  3. Leverage human intelligence/balanced leadership teams. Raise awareness about the different ways that men and women think, make decisions, negotiate, communicate, and resolve conflicts through programs that get to the core of stereotyping and help people explore their unconscious biases.
  4. Engage men and work to change their mindset. Help men recognize the value of their roles as mentors, coaches, and sponsors, and invite them to participate in panels, roundtable discussions, or mentoring pods that revolve around women’s issues and aspirations.
  5. Adopt best practices for advancing women, including sponsorship. Many organizations have initiatives to identify high-potential women and pair them with executives who become sponsors and advocates, creating connections and visibility for them. Ensure these women have meaningful development plans, excellent coaching, and targeted learning programs.

Beef Up the Board

Noecker recommends that companies proactively address both the glass ceiling and the sticky floor – not just one or the other. Since research has documented that organizations with three or more women represented on the board or senior executive team increases innovation and improves business results, company leadership should prioritize beefing up their female board representation.

Her firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, now has five women (33 percent) on the management board—this board provides strategic direction and determines partner compensation. The firm has women in many other leadership positions as well, including 31 percent of practice group leaders and 60 percent of the senior operations team. Noecker says this did not happen by accident.

“We considered systemic barriers and made changes, such as our nominating committee process, that address both the sticky floor and the glass ceiling,” she explains. “Women are participating fully in firm leadership, and their voices are heard when significant decisions are made.”

Noecker reports that this increased representation of women – in firm leadership as well as leadership of client relationships – adds new perspective to the conversation, gives women role models they identify with, and encourages women to reach for opportunities they may not have sought before. She concludes: “Once your organization has women in large numbers breaking through the glass ceiling, it becomes much easier for others to release themselves from the sticky floor.”