Nancy Parsons on The Glass Ceiling


Although much progress has been made by women in the workplace, they are still routinely bypassed for top level positions and promotions. When it comes to women in top leadership positions, the trends are disappointing. In 2018, the number of women CEOs fell by 25%, leaving women holding a mere 33 or 6.6% of the top positions at Fortune 500 companies. Conventional wisdom holds that male-generated discrimination, biases, and sexual harassment are to blame. But according to Nancy Parsons, an expert on the science of personal assessment and development, the reason the glass ceiling remains firmly in place is because its primary root cause is misunderstood.


In her new book, Women are Creating the Glass Ceiling and Have the Power to End It, Parsons reveals her groundbreaking, scientific research to explain why the glass ceiling exists, why women are responsible for it, and how they can use proven and tested methods to finally break through to greater personal and professional success. We interviewed Parsons about the glass ceiling and how women can break through to achieve career success.


What exactly is the “Glass Ceiling” and who is responsible for it?

The glass ceiling is the invisible obstacle or barrier that holds women back from reaching the top executive positions in organizations.  In 1979, the doors were at last opened for women to be promoted based on their talent and performance because of the US Pregnancy Act going into effect.  Even though it has been 40 years since the doors supposedly opened, the numbers of women reaching the CEO or C-Suite level are dismal. Today only 6.6 percent of CEOs in Fortune 500s are women and only 11 percent of top earners are women.   Meanwhile, every year since 1982 women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men. Since 2005, women have received more master’s and doctorate degrees as well. Given these facts, it makes it all the more puzzling that women are not ascending to the top, most coveted roles.  

Through my firm’s research we found out what is causing the glass ceiling, and it is not what people think.  People frequently suggest that discrimination (the good ole’ boy system) and gender bias are the primary reasons women are not rising to top levels. What we found is that most women, contrary to popular lore, are holding themselves back.

How has the glass ceiling changed in the #MeToo era?

What has changed is that executive men and other men in key leadership and professional posts have become fearful about mentoring women and spending alone time with their female employees.  Men are more fearful about potential accusations and claims of sexual harassment or misconduct.  After the #MeToo movement in late 2017, the case of the Judge Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 made matters even worse.  The assault allegations from Dr. Ford were from more than 30 years ago with no direct corroboration or evidence. Despite the lack of evidence and Dr. Ford’s sketchy memories, (didn’t know dates, locations, how she went home, etc.) Judge Kavanaugh’s career was nearly ruined and his reputation forever damaged.  Men are, consequently, more fearful of false allegations or complaints after seeing this highly politicized case play out across the media. So, rather than helping women leaders more, many men executives are pulling back or are more hesitant.

Why are perceptions of women in the workplace often wrong?

I think everyone’s perceptions in the workplace are largely wrong when it comes to the glass ceiling.  Most people assume the glass ceiling exists because of overt discrimination and biases against women. In spite of the positive intent of many male executives (or you can say executive men) and the billions of dollars spent on women in leadership and diversity initiatives, the glass ceiling remains as firm as ever.     

“Through our research at my assessment company, we found that the majority of women are holding themselves back, and this is the reason the glass ceiling is nearly impenetrable to this day. This is not intentional or a conscious choice by women. What holds most women back is their inherent personality risk factor as “Worriers.” This risk factor causes women to become too cautious and more vigilant, to freeze, overanalyze, or retreat, and to go silent from fear they may not have the 100% correct response. They may seem invisible or lack confidence when facing tough situations, which is contrary to what we expect of leaders. “ 

Meanwhile, we found that men’s predominate risks are “Egotists, Upstagers & Rule Breakers.” These risks help propel them forward, despite the fact that the resulting behaviors are often inappropriate or ineffective.  The aggressive responses demonstrated by men are viewed as more courageous or leaderlike. On the other hand, women are viewed as moving away or retreating from adversarial or stressful situations which is contrary to what we expect of leaders.

The rub is that both men and women are equally well suited by way of personality character strengths to serve as effective leaders.  It is the personality-based risk factors that are pulling women out of the running. As Worriers, they lose visibility and are not judged as having the “stuff of leaders” because they hold back, study, review, and analyze more when facing adversity.  Women pull back to study and think, rather than standing up to be assertive and fight. They don’t win the battles because they are not in them.

Why is being a “Worrier” a self-defeating factor?  

Being a Worrier is a self-defeating factor because this causes the person to be focused on a fear of failure or a fear of making a mistake rather than focusing on the opportunities of success.  So, the individual tends to slow down decision making, is too cautious, over-analyzes, requires too much study, and is reluctant to make a decision or to defend a position when there is conflict or strong opposition.  

While this person is often a strong performer in many ways, this tendency to freeze in fear debilitates their effectiveness during challenging times.  They tend to go inside of their head to over-think and re-think rather than stand strong and move forward. The self-defeating factor is they are often the person with the answers and the capability, but they fail to step up and use it or communicate it with the appropriate timeliness or sense of urgency.  By trying to get things 100% correct in the spirit of helping the company succeed, they instead shoot themselves in the foot and fall off of the career ladder.

How can women tap into their intelligence and skills to break through the Glass Ceiling?

First, women should read my book.  What they will learn is that in order to succeed to their greatest capability – they must be deeply aware of their inherent personality-based strengths, risk factors, and intrinsic drivers and rewards, (motivational needs).Too many women (and men) are unaware or in the dark on what their true strengths are to a nuanced level. This is very important and serves to differentiate them from the crowd.  

Next, knowing what intrinsically motivates or excites them is vital, so they steer their career and performance by not only their strengths but by what they love to do.    

Lastly, it is crucial that each woman be aware of her inherent risk factors.  Most people do not know what their risks are, and these traits undermine their success and relationships frequently when faced with stress or adversity.  Everyone has risks, but very few people are aware of their own risk factors. Once she learns what her risks are, then she can take effective steps and develop tactics and skills to prevent her risks from undermining her success.  So, the key to success is deep self-awareness. Without this knowledge (best gained via objective, deep-dive assessments) careers and performance can suffer. Sadly, women too often fail to live up to their promise and potential.