The Glass Escalator

by May 16, 2024

The Glass Escalator

The glass escalator works well for men are fast-tracked to to leadership positions in female dominated sectors 


The term “glass escalator” coined by Sociologist Christine Williams, in1992, refers to the structural advantage in organisations given to men (usually white) in female-dominated occupations or functions, which enhances or fast tracks their careers. Men are less likely to enter female-dominated or “pink” occupations, but when they do, they tend to rise faster and quicker to upper levels of leadership.

Stereotyped “pink” functions

The stigma for men entering traditional women’s professions tends to come from our wider cultures rather than from the women in the profession itself. Men are berated for lowering themselves to do “women’s work”  However, the glass escalator works well for men who rise to leadership positions and obtain disproportionately higher pay than women.

Consider Marketing, PR, Hospitality, Nursing, Teaching the Care sector, etc which at all levels are female-dominated yet this is not reflected in the number of women at senior levels. One of the reasons for this is that women are trapped in the stereotype that we consider them better at an operational level (client, patient, student etc.) while men are better at “ business.”

This was certainly the case in HR where research from 2010 showed that male CHROs spent more time as strategic advisors to the business ( 37% vs 29% for women than they did on daily management.

However, HR seems to have beaten the “glass elevator” and today 70% of CHROs are women reflecting the composition of the workforce. Whether this means that the stereotype has been overcome or female CHROs have shifted their focus – time will tell. It does suggest that the function needs greater gender balance throughout.

Men in a female-dominated environment

But what about other professions? An analysis by the NYT shows that more men are entering female-dominated professions like teaching and nursing, to achieve job stability, financial security, and more time for family life. This employment shift has accounted for nearly a third of men’s total job growth from 2000 to 2010.

Research indicates that younger men are more open to working in female-dominated occupations compared to older men; once younger men enter female-dominated occupations, they stay. This is especially true if they come from another female-dominated environment.


glass escalator

Women in male-dominated environments

Some external disapproval exists when women go into male-dominated sectors unless they work within the “pink” functions within those industries (H.R., Marketing, Legal etc.) When they step into hard-core engineering, production, or technical roles that’s when the challenges arise. Here environments can be toxic and non-inclusive making their situations untenable resulting in poor retention levels.

Worth a read: How to onboard women in male-dominated environments 

So the reverse is true for women in male-dominated fields (e.g. computer science, engineering, construction work), where significant proportions of women leave – or perhaps never enter in the first place – due to sexist adn non-inclusive attitudes among their male colleagues and coworkers.

Research from Tech Talent and HBR suggests

  • 1 in 6 new female hires plan to leave tech after 2 years
  • 25% of women leave tech for a non-tech job after 2 years
  • 50% of women aged 35 leave tech never to return (17% of men)

The churn rate for women in tech is generally 2x to 4x greater than for men.

Coincidentally, these fields tend to be higher-paid than female-dominated fields. It was noticeable when tech shifted from being a female profession in its early years, compensation increased.   

Sexism is sexism

Sexism exists in all industries and even within female-dominated industries male leaders still value male attributes over female ones. It’s that process that creates the glass escalator so that men are promoted into senior and higher-paying positions, which we don’t see in male-dominated industries.


Our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops will improve your workplace for everyone. Find out more HERE.




Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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