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Looking Through the Glass Ceiling

This project was funded by the European Commission, HEESF Objective 3, under the stream of funding to support research into equal opportunities in the labour market. Access to career development and high rewards appear to be restricted by invisible mechanisms which constitute a 'glass ceiling', permeated by only a small minority of women. Focusing on the graduate labour market, the aim of the project was to provide robust evidence about the operation and extent of these mechanisms, and to quantify direct and indirect discriminatory employment practices in order to inform policies and activities targeted at the promotion of gender mainstreaming. To make sense of gender differences in career paths, we were able to draw upon high quality longitudinal data that are representative of the wide spectrum of experiences faced by comparable men and women over ten years, from 1995 till 2004. We used mixed-methods research that included use of longitudinal national survey data supplied by people who graduated in 1995, privileged access to major and new national longitudinal data (the Census Longitudinal Study) and access permissions we had developed with survey respondents that enabled us to select and conduct detailed interviews.

Using and building on these resources, we conducted three main research exercises:

1. A national framework study, comprising of comprehensive analysis of existing national longitudinal data on employment trends among graduates, examining the relationship between gender, qualifications, occupations, regional location, family formation and household activity patterns. This activity will make use of privileged access to the England and Wales Census Longitudinal study - linked census of population data from the 81,’91 and 2001 censuses.

2. A detailed exploration and comparison of the work histories of men and women who graduated in 1995 and 1999 graduate, involving meticulous investigation and analyses of the development of gender differences in various types of employment.

3. Case study analysis of a selected sub-sample of 200 graduates (and in some cases, their partners) to explore the dynamics of career development within the context of partnership formation and family-building activities and plans.

(PDF Document) Download Final Report:
a detailed investigation of the factors that contribute
to gendered career inequalities

The key findings are as follows:

1. The glass ceiling remains a challenge for ambitious ‘non-traditional’ candidates in most organisations (and in most contexts, women constitute ‘non-traditional’ candidates for senior posts).

2. Discrimination and equality of opportunity are not randomly distributed in the graduate labour market.

3. In many instances, we found a gap between the graduates' perspectives of career and employers' perspectives of the staffing and performance management of career occupations in their organisations. Highly-qualified women (and couples) make career decisions based on medium to longer-term interests and household rather than individual income implications. Employers tend to confine staffing and staff development considerations to organisational short-term interests, which can be costly in the medium to-longer term.

4. The extent to which employers have adopted and promoted work/life balance policies is extremely diverse - and the research revealed that both men and women in the population sampled consider these crucial, recognising that the returns and rewards from work are wider than salary levels alone.

5. Career development that includes non-traditional work patterns and short career breaks is available in ‘good practice’ employment and led women to choose and remain in the organisations that offer it.

6. Family formation primarily impacts upon women’s careers, even in partnerships where the couple regard each other’s career as equally important. Male graduates reported modified aspirations and changed values as a result of becoming fathers, but it was apparent that household and family management problems, mainly (still) lead to women rather than men modifying their career engagement and aspirations.

7. Informal and cultural constraints and pressures remain the most significant brakes on graduate women’s access to equality – most significantly, long hours culture and unwillingness on the part of employers to explore the logic of custom and practice – for example, the requirement for all employees to be willing to be geographically mobile, or to vary their working hours or locations at short notice.






Kate Purcell

Peter Elias

Sponsor: CEC