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The terms glass ceilings and sticky floors both refer to the experience of women in the labour market. More specifically they refer to the situation whereby women are not promoted in line with their male counterparts and where women’s wages are significantly less than men’s even though they may be doing jobs of equal value. Although some argue that this situation is changing and that women are closing the gap, there is still a significant difference between the male and female experience of the labour market where women almost always find themselves at a disadvantage. The causes of this situation are complex and involve both structural and social factors. The explanations for the persistence of inequality in the labour market include, among other factors, the failure of governments to address the issues of flexible working conditions and the closed culture and the influence of ‘old boys networks’ which prevail at the higher levels of many corporations. However it is not possible to determine one single factor which has contributed to the persistence of this inequality. Rather it is a combination of a myriad of factors which need to be addressed if women are to be given the recognition they deserve from their work in terms of increased status as well as monetary reward.

According to Van Kerm the ‘glass ceiling’ is the ‘invisible barrier that inhibits promotion opportunities for women (but not men) and prevents women from reaching top positions’ (2004, p1). Marsh et al describe the ‘glass ceiling’ effect as ‘the phenomenon whereby women are promoted into high status professions but are not making it to the top jobs even though they are as talented and able as the men who hold those positions.’ However a study by Booth et al in the late nineties seemed to contradict the notion of the ‘glass ceiling’. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, they found that full-time working women were more likely than men to be promoted. Significantly, Booth and colleagues found that whilst men and women seemed to have equal likelihood of being promoted, women were still more likely to find themselves at the bottom of the wage scale. They coined the term ‘sticky floors’ to describe this phenomenon.

In Booth et al’s study, they were surprised at the findings on wage levels, reasoning that equal pay legislation should limit the ability of firms to pay promoted women less than men (1999, p1). However, the model they used made a distinction between the initial pay rise on promotion and pay increases subsequent to that. They found, ‘women are just as likely to be promoted and receive similar wage increases directly upon promotion. However, promoted women gain fewer subsequent pay increases than men and therefore a lower average wage gain over a sample period. We use the term ‘sticky floors’ to describe this situation whereby women are promoted and receive a one-off wage increase but then find it hard to rise in wage scales after promotion.’ (1999, p2).

‘Glass ceilings’ and ‘sticky floors’ therefore refer to different but closely related topics which both come down to women being at a disadvantage in the labour market. How can this inequality be explained?

Many sociologists refer to the gendered division of labour, that is, ‘the division of work roles and tasks into those performed by men and those p