Return to Success Article Index  Home

Success Article
December, 2000

The Glass Ceiling:
What You Don’t Know, Won’t Hurt You

by Debra Pestrak

For decades, women have blamed the glass ceiling—that invisible barrier believed to keep competent, qualified women from rising to power positions in corporate America—for stalling their careers. But what if the concept of the glass ceiling were just that: a concept?

In business, men have traditionally made up the rules of the game. How well do you play by those rules? At times, women find it easier to blame something or someone else for the reason why they are not rising within an organization rather than to look at themselves to determine if they are acting or doing something that is holding them back. Also, there are prejudiced people out there who unintentionally hold others back, whether that prejudice is about someone’s color, age, religion, or sex. If you go around complaining that things are not fair, you will merely isolate yourself and put up a barrier.

Shattering the Concept of the Glass Ceiling

More and more professional women are taking the position that what you don’t know won’t hurt you when it comes to the glass ceiling, as evidenced in the new book Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business. In fact, the majority of top female Fortune 500® executives profiled in the book don’t find merit in the idea of a glass ceiling.

“I’ve never been a proponent of or a believer in the ‘glass ceiling,’” said Anne Sweeney, President of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, one of the women interviewed for Playing with the Big Boys. Sweeney believes the idea of the glass ceiling has “held more women back than helped them.”

Instead, the Most Powerful Women (MPW) believe that the way to get to the top is by focusing on what you can do and have control over. They’re living proof that the strategy works.

Overcoming Challenges

Saying there’s no glass ceiling does not mean that women in corporate America don’t face challenges. When it comes to getting ahead, they face challenges just as men do. Ultimately, it’s how you deal with challenges that make the difference in your career.

For example, Ursula Burns, senior corporate vice president and vice president worldwide for manufacturing operations at Xerox Corp., encountered resistance “more because of my age, interestingly, than anything else,” she explains. Most times, Burns dealt with the resistance directly. “More often than not, I would be very clear that this is the fact of the relationship—for now, you work in this organization and I lead this organization. We have to figure out a way to work together.”

Karen Garrison, president of Pitney Bowes Management Services talks about “glass walls" rather than glass ceiling. As she believes, “It’s usually harder to get through the glass walls.” The glass walls are your peer’s perception of you and what bias they may carry.

Realizing your Ambitions

These powerful women interviewed began their careers in entry-level positions—just like you. Through hard work, determination, a winning attitude and a knack for playing the game, they made it to the top.

So, how can you realize your ambitions? Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you climb your way to the top.

  • Understand the environment in which you work.
    Adaptation and flexibility are facts of life. Think about it: Wherever you go in life you adapt to the situations around you—that is part of what allows you to be comfortable. Thus, in your work environment, you must be aware of what behaviors, attitudes and attire are acceptable. If you go outside the norm, chances are you are going to have a harder time being recognized as a team player and a professional who is serious about furthering your career.
  • Maintain focus on your priorities.
    Work on the most important business priorities. It is too easy to get caught up in the everyday emergencies and other people’s requests. Also, realize that you can’t do it all. Learn to delegate and trust that your people will do their job. This was one of the most difficult tasks for each of the women interviewed.
  • Understand your skills and the requirements of the job.
    You may be phenomenal at some specific skill, but that talent will do you no good if it’s not a key element to the job you’re performing. As Jean Hamilton, CEO of Prudential Institutional and executive vice president of Prudential Insurance Co. of America, notes: “It’s not just a matter of working harder, spending more hours in the office or doing more reports. It is about finding a match so that you can really achieve.”
  • Be more than good at whatever job you accept—be exceptional.
    Consistently excelling at whatever challenge you are given will help you get noticed and stand out from the crowd. It will also make you a valuable asset to the organization’s success.
  • Learn to be effective with people.
    Chairman and CEO of Exodus Communications® Ellen Hancock states in Playing with the Big Boys, “Your employees get you promoted; your peers allow you to be promoted.” Chances are if your people skills aren’t up to par, you won’t go far in any organization, no matter how talented you truly are.

There is no doubt that corporate America could do more to promote women. But women also can do more to get themselves promoted. It’s worth saying again: In order to achieve true success, you must focus on those things within your control and play the game effectively. It’s advice as true for a man in the corporate world as for a woman.

And finally, if you find yourself stranded in a go-nowhere position despite exceptional performance and a proven track record, get out! That’s exactly what Shelley Broader, vice president perishables merchandising for Hannaford Brothers, and Liz Fetter, president and CEO of QRS Corporation, did. Early in their careers they both encountered cultures that said, “You won’t go anywhere with this company because you’re a woman.” Both left and found their places in organizations that value their talents, dedication and skills. The moral of the story: Find an organization with leaders who will appreciate and reward your talents as well as allow you to grow and be all you want to be. If you are the right leader, whether you’re male or female is not going to matter; it’s going to be that you deliver results, the right way.

Return to Success Article Index  Home

Success Tip

Expect success and it is yours.

When you feel in your innermost being that you will achieve success,

it opens the way to attain it.

The dreams you choose to believe in will come to be.

Available Now! 

Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business may be ordered from the Products page or by calling toll free (888) SUN-3777 or 760 434-3343. Also, the full candid audio and videos interviews with the MPW are available.

Debra has also developed a two-day program focused on what it takes to be successful in your career. Contact her at 888 SUN -3777 for more information on this dynamic program .

About the Author

Debra Pestrak is a peak performance expert, an award-winning motivational speaker, and author of Playing with the Big Boys: Success Secrets of the Most Powerful Women in Business and Playing with the Big Boys & Girls in Real Estate. Debra is founder and CEO of Success Unleashed, Inc.®, a company dedicated to developing powerful programs that impact the way people think and work. Pestrak was a player in corporate America for 26 years, working her way up the ranks from a telephone operator to managing a $20 million budget. She also has instituted and led sales organizations, and is the past president of the National Speakers Association – San Diego. To discover more performance advice, contact the author at 888 SUN-3777.


If you would like to republish any of these articles or success items on your Web site, you may do so as long as you give credit to Debra Pestrak and Success Unleashed, Inc.® and email notify Debra of your intent.  

Your Web site should credit Debra Pestrak as the author, and give the Success Unleashed, Inc.® telephone number (888-786-3777) and provide a live link back to

If you wish to reprint any articles in hard copy in your personal or corporate newsletters or magazines, etc., please send Debra Pestrak a copy of your publication for review PRIOR to publication and include a copyright statement such as: “Copyright Success Unleashed, Inc.®  All rights reserved. This article reproduced with prior permission of Debra Pestrak or Success Unleashed, Inc®.” 

Return to Success Article Index  Home

© 2001 Success Unleashed™, Inc.
® Success Unleashed is a registered trademark of Success Unleashed®, Inc.