Media Briefings

‘Sticky Floors’ Hold Back Women’s Careers

  • Published Date: July 2008

If young women are less likely to socialise with their bosses than young men, they
will have fewer opportunities to signal their abilities to their employers early in their
careers. This may mean that talented women take longer to get off the first rung of
the career ladder – and so fewer of them end up in top jobs.
That is the conclusion of new research by Professor David Bjerk, published in the
July 2008 issue of The Economic Journal. His analysis indicates that rather than
facing a ‘glass ceiling’, women (and employees from minorities) instead face a ‘sticky
floor’: they are unable to get off the first rung of the career ladder as quickly as men.
These findings suggest that we need to rethink our approach to gender equality in
the workplace. Specifically, the report proposes mentoring programmes, which may
allow women and employees from minorities to demonstrate their ability
to employers.
Professor Bjerk comments:
‘Such programmes may give women and minorities more frequent chances to
signal their skill, and may help employers become better able to evaluate skill
signals coming from these groups.’
‘This would mitigate some of the delays women and minorities face in trying to
get on the career-track for the top jobs.’
No employer is able to assess the abilities of each of their new recruits. Instead, they
have to make a judgment based on how their new employees perform early in their
careers. But employers don’t just evaluate their employees at work: informal
conversations are also important. Men might have more opportunities for such
conversations than women early on in their careers.
To take one example, men may be more likely to go to the pub with their boss after
work than women. If so, the employer can observe more of the interpersonal skills of
the male employee than they would of the female employee – and so men have
more of a chance to demonstrate their ability than women.
Similarly, numerous studies have shown that women have different communication
styles than men. If men make most of the hiring and promoting decisions, then skill
signals coming from women may be perceived to be less informative to employers
than similar signals coming from men. So on average, women will have to do more
to demonstrate their ability than men of similar ability to convince employers that
they are good enough to be promoted.
Once promotion takes place into a ‘career-track’ job, the disadvantage faced by
women (and minorities) disappears: once the employee has progressed beyond an
entry-level position, the employer can observe their ability frequently at work, as midlevel
employees have more responsibilities.
But as fewer women or minorities get to this stage, then fewer make it to the top jobs
– the problem is not really a ‘glass ceiling’ but really more of a ‘sticky floor’ as the
first step, not the last, is the key challenge. This is where the mentoring programmes
proposed by Professor Bjerk come in: they may allow junior women and minority
employees to demonstrate their ability early on in their careers.
Notes for editors: ‘Glass Ceilings or Sticky Floors? Statistical Discrimination in a
Dynamic Model of Hiring and Promotion’ by David Bjerk is published in the July 2008
issue of the Economic Journal.
David Bjerk is at Claremont McKenna College.
For further information: contact David Bjerk on +1 909 607 4471 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095