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Women and visible minorities are not only continuing to hammer against a glass ceiling, but their advancement is being hindered by a sticky floor and a promotion bottleneck in middle management, a large-scale Canadian study of career advancement concludes.

The analysis of careers of 22,338 employees found that rates of promotion of white men at all levels from the start of their careers to being moved up to senior management were consistently highest. On average, white males were 4.5 percentage points more likely to receive promotions at any level than white females, 7.9 percentage points more likely to get promotion than minority males and 16.1 percentage points more likely than minority women with equivalent education and experience.

"The glass ceiling is something that had previously only been studied at the top," says Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business.

"But, we thought, what happens at the top doesn't happen in isolation. Women and minorities can only be promoted to top level jobs if they've made it through the middle manager ranks," says Prof. Konrad, who did the study with Margaret Yap, an associate professor at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management.

The study, which was released this week, looked at the promotion histories of non-union employees of a Canadian information and communications technology company over five years, and is the largest of its kind.

The effect starts at entry level, where white women were 11 percentage points less likely to receive promotions within their first five years than white men, and minority females were almost 29 percentage points less likely to be promoted than a white male with equivalent education and experience. Minority men were only slightly less likely to get an early promotion than a white man, so "at the floor it's a man's world for promotions," Prof. Konrad says.

Beyond that, the researchers identified a "mid-level bottleneck" that clearly favoured white men. White females were on average 5.75 percentage points less likely to be promoted from mid-management to senior positions than comparable white males. Minority males were 10.1 percentage points less likely and minority females were at the largest disadvantage, 17.25 percentage points less likely than similar white males to receive promotions.

Prof. Konrad says the study wasn't able to draw conclusions about reasons behind the consistent findings. "It is possible that promotions were all done based on capability, but the results were so consistent that there is a strong possibility that decision makers are making promotion decisions in a biased way," she says.

"For women, decision makers may be asking themselves questions like: 'What happens when they have children or their husbands have to move to take a new job?' It's really hard to get evidence of bias like this because decision makers will not say on surveys that they think twice about promoting a woman because she will take a maternity leave. That's illegal, and they've all had diversity training and they will say what is expected, even if there is bias hidden behind closed doors," Prof. Konrad said. "How we find the hidden bias is to look at the numbers."

The numbers also clearly show a bias against promoting visible minorities into decision-making positions, she added. "This appears to be a case of people having preference for people who are similar to them. They could hesitate to promote people who come from a different cultural perspectives because they might be more likely to question and ask whether there may be a different way of doing things. "

That's where bias could show up, but "that doesn't make any sense," she adds. "For managers it is important to have people on board who have different viewpoints and are challenging decisions and look at multiple factors before making decisions. We know that groups that look into their assumptions make better decisions."

The researchers concluded: "We're never going to change what happens at all levels until we create reward allocation and promotion systems that value the different contributions and viewpoints of everyone."

The findings appear in the September edition of the Ivey school's online publication Impact.

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