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Pillai, K. R., Prasad, S. & Thomas, J. (2011). Why do Women Still Experience Downward Gravitation in the Corporate Ladder? A Close Look at Glass Ceiling in Bahrain, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 19(1), 1-10.

Why do Women Still Experience Downward Gravitation in the Corporate Ladder? A Close Look at Glass Ceiling in Bahrain

K. R. Pillai, Saloni Prasad & Julia Thomas


Despite professional eligibilities and ample opportunities, female employees are not aptly represented in the higher corridors of organisational power. Patterns of gender segmentation are still persisting. Studies disclose women are quite often subjugated and marginalised with respect to promotion and remuneration. This study explores certain factors associated with gender discrimination in Bahrain and identifies extrinsic and intrinsic factors that are likely to prevent advancement of women in organisations. The findings of the study clearly divulge the gender prejudiced discrimination against women. Hence, the study exhorts the organisations of the twenty first century to be enablers of inclusive growth and equal employment practices for holistic upward spiral.


Gender discrimination at the workplace has long been a debated issue (Arrow 1971, Lazear & Rosen 1990, Bernard & Laband 1995). The patterns of gender segregation are persistent and are decipherable in covert and overt ways (Arrow 1971, Kaufmann, Isaksen & Lauer 1996, Arfken, Bellar & Helms 2004, Anderson 2006, Zeng 2008), despite much announced and promising equal employment opportunity claims by organisations across time. Though globalisation and equal employment opportunity regimes have opened up many avenues of corporate placements, yet women are still less represented when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder (Grout, Park & Sonderegger 2009, International Labour Organisation (ILO) 2010a, 2010b). The ILO underscores that fair globalisation can be achieved by creating opportunities for all, which enable men and women to meet their aspirations for democratic participation and material prosperity. The decent work notion envisions a nonpartisan treatment at worksite. However, regardless of promising equal employment opportunity policies, women employees are often knocked down on the imperceptible, but inextricably institutionalised and repressive, transparent barricades, which is technically called the glass ceiling. Hence, this phenomenon in organisational settings implicitly conveys that the opportunity to get promoted to higher echelons in the corridors of organisational power and authority is not as easy as that of being absorbed into organisational fraternity.

Glass ceiling can be defined as an intangible barrier that determines the altitude to which women or a marginalised/under represented demographic minority can come up in an organisation (Albrecht, Borland & Vroman 2003, Arulampalam, Booth & Bryan 2004, Pendakur & Pendakur 2005). While the phrase glass ceiling is metaphorical many women do not realise the intensity of its effect unless and until it is experienced. The word ‘ceiling’ implies that there is a limitation, preventing career growth and ‘glass’ transparent and unseen. The gender dimension of glass ceiling is most often applied in organisations where the upper echelons of power is prejudiced in favour of men and the women counterparts are sidelined in the race to organisational hierarchies. Moreover, the women find it nearly impossible to break the gender prejudiced marginalisation in the corridors of corporate power. Keeping this unethical employment practice in focus, the present study was initiated to explore the factors underlying the persistence of glass ceiling in the Kingdom of Bahrain, based on qualitative data obtained through a questionnaire survey.

The format of this report is as follows. Following the introductory section, the report narrates the research problem in more detail by reviewing the various dimensions of glass ceiling discussed in the related literature. Methodological issues of the present study are discussed in the methodology. Analytical results of primary data are presented in the subsequent section, followed by discussion. The concluding section the report summarises the findings of the study.

The Research Problem Indepth

Reports by international agencies disclose that participation of women in the labour market is on the rise (ILO 2010a, 2010c). More women are entering into labour market (ILO 2010a, 2010b) in an unprecedented manner due to globalisation and changing perceptions on women’s economic and productive engagement. The ILO (2010c) estimates the female labour force participation rate of Bahrain as 29.8 per cent. Though it is far less than the global estimate of female labour force participation (51.7 per cent), the country’s position is better than that of Middle East average, which is estimated as 25.4 per cent (ILO 2010a).

A myriad of studies across the world (Kaufmann, et al. 1996, Selmer & Leung 2003, Arfken, et al. 2004, Reinhold 2005, Anderson 2006, Zeng 2008, Grout, et al. 2009) disclose that the majority of top management positions are primarily held by men. Female managers, if they are able to attain the position, tend to be concentrated in lower management positions and hold less authority and discretionary power than men, which is termed as a labyrinth of leadership by Eagly and Carli (2007). This observation suggests that something beyond just gender differences in career patterns must be at work to account for the huge difference in the number of men versus women in top management positions. Although women, as a whole, may place less emphasis on career success than men (Grout, et al. 2009), there are a considerable number of women who strive for top management positions and are unable to attain them.

The U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission observes that the glass ceiling effect is a transparent unbreakable barrier that keeps the minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, despite their qualifications and achievement (as cited in Mattis 2004). This type of discrimination is seemed to be detrimental both to the organisation and to the employee concerned. With respect to the organisation, it cannot utilise the conceptual and innovative skills of stumbled down or kept away female employees from higher managerial levels. For female workers, the exclusionist policy is an unethical organisational policy, despite their skill, experience and commitment, which is mainly instrumental to get demotivated. Since women constitute a significant proportion of workforce diversity (ILO 2010a) in the modern corporate domain, the production of goods and services is likely to be hampered if women perceive that they are marginalised and their career prospects are adversely affected by professional bias or organisational prejudices. In such a situation women are less inclined to believe that the organisation has an ethical orientation (Valentine & Fleischman 2003). Mattis (2004) supports this view by endorsing that poor female retention is a major issue, not only in terms of losing key skills and knowledge, but also in competitive advantage.

Peterson, Park, Hall and Seligman (2009) observe that work should intrinsically be rewarding and constitute a central part of one’s very existence. They further emphasise that workers, irrespective of gender dimension, must feel that work may be more involving and seen as a way to achieve status, power and self esteem. Studies (Selmer & Leung 2003, Mattis 2004, Reinhold 2005, Anderson 2006, Tan 2008, Patterson & Mavin 2009) show that when the magnitude of discrimination crosses the tolerance level, women workers will be forced to walk away from their organisations and either search for greener pastures or eventually settle down on their own entrepreneurial ventures. Citing an American example, Mattis (2004) ratifies that a dramatic increase in women owned businesses in the U.S. is due to the women’s desire to escape or avoid altogether the glass ceiling in corporate America, and to gain more flexibility and contentment in their work arrangement. In fact, women gain a considerable amount of hands on experience, before they embark on their own businesses, from their previous companies.

Insch, McIntyre and Napier (2008) allude to yet another dimension of glass ceiling. This second layer glass ceiling prevents the women executives from receiving foreign management assignments and career exposures and the same element may be a pertinent parameter for future promotions to the top levels. Women fail to demonstrate as much interest as men in international careers (Selmer & Leung 2003) due to family preoccupations and pessimistic preconceived notions about the host country. Hence, female workers lose the opportunity to nurture themselves to be suitable to challenging corporate milieu. Moreover, the qualification criteria for women are stiffer than for males with regard to leadership positions (Kaufmann, et al. 1996). Thus, women disappear in the midst of their journey towards corporate leadership, hitting against an unmalleable transparent barrier. This phenomenon is an explicit manifestation of alienation and marginalisation of women at work and lurches them to a state of impoverishment by offering poorer rewards and promotions in comparison to their male counterparts.



The input for the present study was obtained through survey method by administering structured questionnaires to women employees from the Kingdom of Bahrain. A total number of 75 respondents participated in the survey. The participants were identified from four prominent sectors in Bahrain — corporate houses, education, health, and banking sectors. Though it is important to deliberate the perception of men about the career advancement of women, the present study was purely gender oriented. The marital status of the respondents indicates that around 76 per cent are married. Since the study was gender oriented only female employees were considered in the study. The nationality profile of the respondents is spanning across Indians, Bahrainis, Filipinos and a cross section of various other nationalities. Another approach of the study was to understand the number of years of service of the respondents with the current employer. Only about 25 per cent of the respondents had been serving the same employer for more than ten years. This group was identified to be from educational institutions. Around 36 per cent of the respondents had less than three years of tenure with the current employer, but who had previous work experiences. This observation clearly indicates that with the single exception of schools, women change their employers/jobs anticipating career progression. A summary of the demographic profile of the respondents is presented in Table 1.

Table 1
Demographic profile of the respondents % (N = 75)
Marital status Married 76.0
Unmarried 24.0
Age (years) Below 25 13.0
25-35 39.0
35-45 24.0
45-55 24.0
Nationality Indian 50.0
Bahraini 23.0
Filipino 11.0
Others 16.0
Employment by sectors Corporate houses 28.0
Education 33.0
Health 27.0
Banks 12.0
Total work experience (years) Below 3 17.0
3-5 23.0
5-10 9.0
10-15 13.0
Above 15 38.0
Working with current employer (years) Below 3 36.0
3-5 25.0
5-10 11.0
10-15 4.0
Above 15 24.0


The research design followed an exploratory approach. The study was framed to explore the various factors underlying gender discrimination in organisations that arrest the career growth of women workers. The study focused four types of establishments such as corporate houses, banks, health sector and schools. Respondents for the survey were identified through a combination of quota sampling and snowball sampling techniques. Quota sampling was used to facilitate the logical representation of respondents from each sector covered under the study. During the pilot study it was understood that getting the details of respondents, from which the required samples could be selected, might not be possible. Hence, the researchers established rapport with accessible respondents (many categorically denied participating in the survey), and subsequently their referrals helped to identify the subsequent respondents. Fully structured questionnaires, containing multiple choice closed as well as open ended questions, were administered to elicit qualitative data. The response rate was 100 per cent due to direct administration of the questionnaire.


The percentage method was employed to understand the demographic features of the respondent and other factors pertaining to barriers of career progression for women employees. Ten factors were identified, which were thought to be limiting factors to growth of women in organisations. The respondents were requested to rank these factors, based on their personal experience, in a ten point scale (ten being the most prominent and one being the least prominent). A combined mean was used to compare the extrinsic and intrinsic barriers to women’s professional growth. Variables with relatively higher value represent major factors of gender dimension of glass ceiling.

A summated scale was employed to analyse the factors related to career advancement of women. A four point attitudinal scale was developed to analyse these factors and coded as follows: very helpful = 4, fairly helpful = 3, slightly helpful = 2, and not at all helpful = 1. The nine variables identified for understanding the factor of career progression were ranked based on the mean score. Correlation was employed to understand the mutuality of these variables. Cronbach’s alpha measure was used to test the internal consistency of the variables that constitute women’s advancement in the organisations. A reliability coefficient of 0.70 or higher suggests that the variables have relatively high internal consistency.


This section presents the analytical results of primary data in three categories. 1) barriers to career progression for women, 2) time taken for moving ahead in the career ladder, and 3) vital requisites for attaining top level executive positions.

Barriers to Career Progression for Women

This part presents the various barriers that forestall women’s advancement in their career progression. Around 54 per cent of the respondents reported gender prejudiced glass ceiling. The barriers to career progress of women are a composite of ten variables which can be classified into the two broad categories of 1) extrinsic and 2) intrinsic factors. Intrinsic factors are those variables, in which the women employees have some control over them. Extrinsic variables are beyond their control.

Company policies and practices are major barriers arresting the career progression of women. Difficulties with the administration of equal employment opportunity policy are reflected in organisational responses inadequately explaining reasons for glass ceiling practices. Allowing this extrinsic feature to persist in contemporary society is somewhat surprising given the acknowledged national contribution of women to economic development. Due to various reasons women are supposed to experience difficulty to attain requisite education, skills and experience by the time they are screened for higher responsibilities in their organisations.

It has also been expressed that lack of enthusiasm for taking up challenging assignments poses an intrinsic hurdle to career progression. Three quarters of the study respondents were expatriate female workers and they reported the difficulty in maintaining a balance between family and career. Understandably, balancing family and work priorities is a major impediment for career progression. The survey respondents expressed that as their family is the first priority candidacy for higher managerial levels is problematic. Consequently, it was not surprising to find that around 60 per cent of respondents expressed that higher organisational positions do not normally attract their interest.

Table 2 presents respondent mean scores for perceived barriers to career progression. The estimated value for combined mean of extrinsic barriers is 5.86 and that of intrinsic barrier is 4.71. Table 2 extrinsic factors were more prominent than intrinsic factors in preventing women employees from attaining higher responsible positions in their organisations.

Table 2
Barriers to career progression
Prerequisites Mean score Standard deviation
Unfavourable company policies* 9.16 0.92
Societal prejudice* 7.50 0.77
Difficulty to strike a family/career balance** 7.45 1.27
Lack of women role models in the organisation* 7.38 1.13
Lack of skill possession** 5.60 1.43
Lack of requisite education** 5.50 1.29
Lack of experience ** 2.98 1.37
Absence of peer colleague support* 2.92 1.29
Lack of opportunity to networking* 2.35 1.26
Lack of enthusiasm to for challenging assignments** 2.00 1.03

Note: * Extrinsic barriers to career progression of women employees, and
** Intrinsic barriers to career progression of women employees.

Time Span Taken for Moving Ahead in the Career Ladder

Often women take more time to acquire higher level jobs when compared to their male counterparts. This time lag takes away the opportunity of women employees to hold senior position before they retire. This proposition is supported by approximately 65 per cent of the respondents who endorsed that women are likely to get less than a 40 per cent chance of being advanced to an organisational position. Of the female employees contacted for the study, only one third were either in the managerial or the supervisory category. Many of the study respondents were in lower levels.

Vital Requisites for Attaining Top Level Executive Positions

Advanced education, specialised training, good performance and proven record of accomplishments are perceived as the most conducive factors of career progression. Nine factors presumed vital for career progression were evaluated. The results are presented in Table 3.

Table 3
Prerequisites for career progression
Prerequisites Mean score Standard deviation
Advanced education 3.74 0.84
Specialised training 3.67 0.79
Extensive operational/line experiences 3.63 0.69
Variety of work experiences 3.43 0.82
Proven record of accomplishments 3.21 0.84
Extensive staff/support experiences 3.14 0.75
Proper networking 3.07 1.02
Eagerness towards taking business risks 2.96 0.91
Being a woman 2.56 1.03

The content of Table 3 reveals three categories of perceived promotional attributes. First is the expected work related competencies, which are the ‘hard’ skills of education, training, management and experience. Second are the social ‘soft’ skills of workplace achievements, staff support roles and networking. Last, are gender related dimensions (men often seen as greater risk takers). The evidence in Table 3 summarises notions of what the respondents believed were promotional pathways.

An attempt was also made to decipher the interaction of factors related to career progression. The results are shown in Table 4. Expectedly, the variables were generally related in patterns reflecting the content of Table 3. The construct of being a woman was seldom significantly correlated with the other factors and the two correlations at the p level may be type 1 errors. The content of Table 4 reinforces the perceived relative importance of the construct of Table 3.

Table 4
Correlations (N = 75)
Factors 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1 AE
2 CBR .47*
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00)
3 ST .76** .57**
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00) (.00)
4 WE .50** .40** .54**
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00) (.00) (.00)
5 OE .53** .49** .60** .58**
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00) (.00) (.00) (.00)
6 SE .38** .17 .29* .41** .44**
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00) (.11) (.01) (.00) (.00)
7 RC .15 .34** .20 .24* .32** .23*
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.21) (.00) (.07) (.03) (.01) (.05)
8 PRA .53** .34* .39** .46** .46** .28* .36**
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.00) (.00) (.00) (.00) (.00) (.01) (.00)
9 BW .09 .00 .11 .18 .16 .29* .17 .26*
Sig. (2-Tailed) (.46) (.86) (.39) (.13) (.16) (.01) (.15) (.03)

Notes: a. * p < 0.05, and ** p < 0.01.
b. AE : Advanced education, CBR: Capacity to undertake business risks, ST : Specialised training, WE: Variety of work experience, OE: Operational experience, SE: Staff experience, RC: Right connections, PRA : Proven records of accomplishments, and BW: Being a woman.


Though a very small country, Bahrain has made many strides in the socioeconomic front. The nation has become a model to its counterparts in the Middle East in particular, and other Muslim countries in general. The Kingdom has announced its perspective plan of comprehensive development in its ‘Vision 2030’. The corporate zone, in the Kingdom, is also expected to march ahead to realise this dream, by being the enabler of inclusive development.

The study results demonstrate the perceived prevalence of the gender dimension of glass ceiling, despite the much professed equal employment policies claim of corporate entities. Hence, the findings of the study lend support to Gilbert (2003), who pointed out that due to ‘an old boy’s networkatmosphere’ women folk are often underestimated and underrepresented in organisation, and in spite of their capability to handle senior executive positions, women are often kept away from the organisational mainstream activities, prompting women employees to leave the firm. This type of gender prejudice is in favour of men in the higher echelons of organisational power, which is often observed to be in congruence with Tan’s (2008) revelation of women’s displacement, restricting their growth potential. Seldom are equal qualifications, skills and experience enough for women to move towards organisational pinnacle. Moreover, there is some evidence that women, are poor negotiators, and generally, dislike the negotiation process (Babcock & Laschever 2003) for capturing organisational power. The study data also reveals that women employees remained unmarried in order to excel in their career.

An advanced education is an essential prerequisite for organisational promotion to higher levels of managerial positions. Possession of academic achievement is a clear indication that rich theoretical and conceptual knowledge is essential for handling higher managerial positions. Moreover, it is also essential that managers at the top level must have holistic view of the organisations and must be adept in the intricacies of various operational levels. These dimensions of talent help them to address the organisational issues at right time with right perspectives. Hence, it is necessary to have a proven record of accomplishments in a variety of work experiences with the backup of specialised trainings. Being a woman, to be considered for higher managerial position, has been identified as a least preferred requirement as perceived by the respondents, underscoring the gender dimension of glass ceiling.

Organisational hostility and societal prejudice were reported as prominent barriers to the career progression of female employees. This revelation draws the attention of modern firms to adopt more equitable employment policies to ensure women’s retention and career advancement. Ethical employment practice is one of the core values of corporate culture, and realistically both men and women employees are equally eligible for organisational benefits, but pragmatically women often have to outperform their colleagues to be considered for promotions. This contention was earlier made by Kaufmann, et al. (1996) pertaining to women’s double uphill battle when seeking higher management positions, as they can be expected to be less visible in terms of candidacy for higher managerial levels. Lawler (2003) claims that when organisations mistreat their employees, there occurs a death spiral, and as a result employee performance declines.

The study results also support the perceptions of Eagly and Carli (2007), who assert that women had virtually no chance of attaining influential leadership roles. Women stumble down and give up in various numbers at many points leading up to the pinnacle of organisational power. It is revealed in the study that moving to the top of an organisational position is an uphill task for the women employees. This alienation is a cue to poor performance and lower levels of organisational accomplishments. However, the study does not overlook the intrinsic impediments of women’s career progression. Top priority assigned to family (for dual responsible females) often seems to be a major impediment to career progress. Hence, it is very difficult for them to prove themselves capable of flexi work arrangements, participating in career development programmes, building out of office social networking and willingness to be relocated.


The study results show lack of education, skills possessed, company policies and inability to manage work and family life effectively as the prime underlying factors that hinder woman’s advancement in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Gender by itself is often identified in the literature as a first and foremost career barrier, which is a considerable demotivator in the minds of interviewed respondents. Women employees need a combination of factors for gearing up in the organisational hierarchies as no stand alone factors such as education or family and work balance will help them attain executive positions. Though a limited number of the women in the study occupied a middle level managerial post, they attribute their success on their performance and competency. Organisations in the competitive global arena are becoming increasingly obliged to understand that equal opportunity is a better recipe for their holistic upward advancement.

The disenfranchised position of women in their official assignments is understood to be a corporate predicament. Unlike conventional firms, modern firms are expected to guarantee comparatively better equal employment practices to utilise sustainably of the committed talent pool. The firms, having unethical employment practices, like glass ceiling, are not only likely to lose their current workforce, but become unattractive to potential talents. Hence, firms are encouraged to provide sufficient opportunities to attract and retain competent human resources. Cultivating a rewarding organisational environment that can attract and retain highly talented people compels organisations to reexamine policies restricting gender diversity.


K. R. Pillai is a faculty member in the Birla Institute of Technology, Kingdom of Bahrain. He has more than ten years experience in teaching economics and management and more than seven years field research in analysing socioeconomic problems. He has coauthored a textbook, contributed chapters to edited volumes of academic textbooks and prepared articles to national and international journals. He has also prepared a few reports under working paper category, including financially funded projects. His research interest includes economic theory, resource management, human resource and labour economics.


Saloni Prasad is an alumna of Birla Institute of Technology, Kingdom of Bahrain


Julia Thomas is an HR Executive with DHL Express, Kingdom of Bahrain



The authors are grateful to the Editors, especially Dr. Cecil A. Pearson, and the Referees for their valuable comments and suggestions to the enrichment of the paper.


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