Stained Glass:  Does a Lack of Cultural Competence in the Workplace Cause the Glass Ceiling?

Christie Szoke


Organizations are realizing that in order to be successful and recruit and retain the best employees, they must increase the cultural competence of their current employees and the clients they serve.  Whether the organization is not-for-profit or privately owned, learning to recognize and use differences among employees will benefit any organization.  For most businesses this recognition does not happen automatically, but through a process that involves personal and professional change.

For most corporations this change involves creating an inclusive organization where the differences of all people are respected, valued, and used to achieve a common goal.  Employees bring thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, geographic background, education, economic background, and communication styles to the work environment.  While opening a door for innovative ideas, these beliefs may also close a door on advancement in corporations.  Therefore, the preconceived notions caused by a lack of cultural competence in an organization directly cause this “glass ceiling” effect. 


This essay argues that the lack of cultural competence about an employee’s ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender directly causes the glass ceiling. 

Glass Ceiling

According to the Dictionary of the Social Sciences (2002) the “glass ceiling” is defined as “an unofficial and metaphorically invisible barrier to women's advancement at the highest levels of many career paths.”  While this statement is true and this phenomenon does exist, it does not paint an accurate picture of the entire situation in businesses today.  This widely accepted definition does not recognize the countless other minorities that experience workplace discrimination, so for this paper, the definition of the “glass ceiling” has been modified.

The new definition includes other minorities based on race and sexual orientation because people today need to understand and acknowledge that women are not the only ones who face corporate barriers.  The following definition for the glass ceiling works because it encompasses most people who face promotional barriers due to predisposed criteria:  The glass ceiling is an artificial invisible barrier that limits career advancement for minorities based on ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation.

Cultural Competence

Culture shapes individual experiences, perceptions, decisions, and interactions.  In a society as culturally diverse as the United States, corporations need to increase their awareness of and sensitivity toward diverse populations and work to understand how culture influences on-the-job behaviors.

A culturally competent person can acknowledge, accept, and value the cultural differences of others.  He or she has the knowledge and skills that enable him or her to appreciate, value, and celebrate similarities and differences among culturally diverse groups (Singh, Williams, & Spears, 2002).  Established educators Meltzoff and Lenssen (2000) further develop this idea in their functional definition of cultural competence: 

Cultural competence begins with the ability to describe and analyze one's own culture and develops into an awareness of how culture influences the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of self and others.  It includes the ability to explain how perceptions of difference help or hinder social interactions and productivity.  Finally, it requires the skills necessary to resolve conflicts, make decisions, and participate in social action.  (p. 29)



Nearly 40 years after the federal government launched a program to improve prospects for minorities in the workplace, people of color remain underrepresented in corporate America—especially at top levels of management.  While most agree that corporate America has made some strides in hiring and advancing minorities, "we still have a very, very long way to go," says Rene Redwood, former executive director of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, a bipartisan panel created by Congress in 1991 (Coolidge, 1996).

Of the senior managers in Fortune 500 companies, 95 percent are white and 84 percent are male, according to a 2002 study conducted by the New York research firm, Catalyst (Solis, 2002).  The study also found that black women have a tougher climb to the top because they face a "doubled-edged sword" of sexism and racism.  A nationwide survey released during the summer of 2000 buttresses the firm’s report.  This survey, featured in the Dallas Morning News (2002), found a slight increase in the numbers of minorities serving on corporate boards of directors, from 2.5 percent in 2000 to 4.75 percent in 2002 (Solis, 2002). 

A discrepancy in pay also persists between blacks and whites.  Black men with professional degrees, for example, on average earn 21 percent less than their white male counterparts, according to the Commission’s report (Coolidge, 1996).

Another study conducted by Brecker & Merryman Inc. (1995), a New York human resources consulting firm, surveyed 375 African-American and Hispanic managers at large corporations and also found that many respondents reported concern over the lack of diversity in senior-level positions.  On a scale of 1 (poor) to 7 (excellent), respondents on average rated the representation of minority professionals in high-level positions at a weak 1.5 (Fillon & McGee, 1995).

Part of the problem is that not enough minorities are on a career ladder that leads to the boardroom.  According to the Glass Ceiling Commission, the critical career path for senior management positions in corporate America has been finance, marketing, and operations—areas that are directly related to the bottom line (Coolidge, 1996).  Yet many minorities and women tend to get jobs in personnel or public relations departments, whether by choice or by assignment (Coolidge, 1996).


Since the rise of big business, women have never held a majority of upper-level positions in corporations.  This glass ceiling describes a reality in which women tend to be over-represented at the lower levels of an organization and under-represented at senior levels (Baker, B., Wendt, A., & Slonaker, W., 2002). 

A study conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy center (2004) found that women held only 15 percent of leadership positions among 57 Fortune 500 companies in telecommunications, publishing, entertainment and advertising in 2002 (Marshall, 2004).  Women made up just 12 percent of board members, and none of the companies surveyed had a majority of women at the top (Marshall, 2004).  Women held only five percent of executive titles with clout, such as senior vice president or above, while some companies had no women listed as top executives in their annual reports (Marshall, 2004).

The relative lack of diversity (accompanied by a lack of cultural competence) in industries that play such a crucial role in shaping the way the public thinks (i.e. the media) particularly concerns public policy experts (Marshall, 2004).  Poor representation, particularly at the board level, also has a direct impact on benefits and maternity leave policies, which tend to be more women-friendly when there are more women in charge (Marshall, 2004).  "That [under-representation of women in powerful managerial roles] creates a self-generating cycle, making it less likely that women will be able to move up," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center (Marshall, 2004).

Sexual Orientation

            Although homosexuality has existed for centuries, it has only recently become socially acceptable in the United States.  For nearly half of the homosexual population, however, workplace discrimination still exists.  According to six years of data from the 1990s conducted by economists Nathan Berg of the University of Texas at Dallas and Donald Lien of the University of Texas at San Antonio, gay men earn about 22 percent less than similarly qualified straight men, controlling for such variables as age, race, education, occupation, and area of residence (Koretz, 2003).  Conversely, the study also found that gay women earn approximately 30 percent more than similarly qualified heterosexual women (Koretz, 2003). 

This is surprising because the public is lead to believe, from both the media and from advocates for homosexual rights, that homosexuals are discriminated against in every facet of American culture.  Articles in nationally read newspapers like USA Today, Chicago Tribune, New York Times, Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal constantly convey this belief.  One example, an article from USA Today (2004), argued that gays will never have full legal protection unless they are allowed to marry (Jacques, 2004).  Another example, from the Chicago Tribune (2004), states that the head of a major government organization is erasing sexual orientation from protection against bias in all marketing and promotional materials (Taylor, 2004).  A third example comes from the Website of the gay rights organization Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD).  This organization devotes itself to gaining equal rights and civil liberties for homosexuals primarily through legislation, and their Website is filled with homosexual discrimination cases (GLAD, n.d.). 

            Public policy debates over the need for employment anti-discrimination policies that incorporate sexual orientation protections have raised discussion of the economic status of lesbian, gay, and bisexual workers.  According to John Blandford (2003), a social science researcher at the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy, groups opposing employment protections portray lesbians and gay men as an economically privileged group, while gay and lesbian rights organizations point to extensive anecdotal evidence to argue that workplace discrimination has pervasive, detrimental effects on non-heterosexual workers

            Obviously, homosexual men feel the negative effects of a predominately heterosexual workforce each day, and countless individuals from all facets of American society are continually striving for the equal treatment of all workers—including these talented men.  Homosexuals, like all other minorities (i.e. women, people of color, and people from various religions), can bring new and interesting perspectives to issues in the workplace, and their ideas should be embraced.


To eliminate the glass ceiling and increase cultural competence, organizations must institute change.  Executives and top managers must stress the need cultural competence, and they can do this through training and development.  Organizations can hold training sessions that assess cultural competence and teach employees how to embrace each other’s ideas.  The Praxis Group, an organizational development firm specializing in training, management, planning and building the presence of international competence, is a local example of an organization that specializes in training corporations about cultural competence and the need for acceptance and tolerance in the workplace.

Benefits of Increasing Cultural Competence


A culturally competent workforce can also help to eliminate the problem of “groupthink.”  Michael Woodruff (1991), president of a national training and development firm, defines “groupthink” as “the process of rationalization that sets in when members of a team begin to think alike.”  By bringing together people of vastly different backgrounds, workgroups are more likely to explore many solutions, whereas white men in a workgroup might come from similar backgrounds, so their ideas and solutions are likely to be similar without any consideration of other possibilities.

Increased Profits

In addition, valuing cultural competence in a business environment contributes to increased productivity, profitability, and increased team cohesion.  When businesses act upon their understanding of different cultures, they are at an advantage in identifying and meeting the needs of their customers.  Increasing cultural competence is a challenge that begins with individual efforts and a commitment from upper-level management, and its benefits (i.e. better solutions to difficult problems resulting in increased profits) overwhelmingly outweigh its costs (i.e. the fees to hire a training and development firm). 

Reduced Workplace Discrimination

            When managers and employees learn to embrace each other’s differences, a psychological distance between them is reduced.  This allows for a more open flow of communication between managers and subordinates in which the subordinates feel comfortable with being honest and open in the workplace.  This nurturing environment makes the employees (the organization’s number one customer) happy and more likely to excel at their jobs.  This hard work creates promotions for employees all the way up the corporate ladder and through the glass ceiling.

Testimony from Corporations

General Motor's director, community relations and diversity initiatives, Lorna Utley (1996), explains, "Creating and managing an inclusive culture should become a natural part of everything you do.  We at GM are driving to institutionalize an inclusive culture through our key values," (Griggs, 1996).  Marriott International's executive vice-president, human resources, Brendan Keegan adds, "Our corporate values are not just nice statements or nice things to do.  They are critical to our business success.  Our value of 'Taking Care of the Employee,' underscores our founder's fundamental belief and experience that, when you 'take care of your employees, they will take care of the customers.'  This is what our business is about" (Griggs, 1996).

Ann Young (1996), diversity director for Eastman Kodak agrees with the importance of values: 

"Everything we do is based on the five Kodak Values.  They are: respect for the individual, uncompromising integrity, trust, credibility, and continuous improvement and personal renewal.  Each of us has responsibility for accepting, communicating, and acting accordingly.  Each region around the world works in ways consistent to these values.  Within that, there is the opportunity to customize for local needs.  In order to contribute to our fullest extent, each of us as an individual needs to be in an environment that is safe, where there is hope, and that is flexible enough to allow all people to be themselves  (p. 8).


The smart organization self-consciously creates workplace cultures that train employees to handle their diverse, internal relationship issues.  Increasing the team’s cultural competence not only prevents hostile work environment issues, but it also makes the team flexible enough to continually support one another personally while still succeeding, as a team, in the marketplace.  In this way, matters of race, gender, age, religion, disability, and sexual orientation are handled in the context of making the overall work culture more effective.  Therefore, by increasing cultural competence, organizations can eliminate the “stained glass ceiling” that is still firmly in place in corporate America.



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