top of page
  • Immagine del redattoreCristina Bombelli

Why is the glass ceiling so thick for women managers in Italy?


Cristina Bombelli

Coordinator Laboratorio Armonia: Observatory and Research on Gender Differences,

Key Words: glass ceiling, female managers, organizational cultures.

Case History collected by: Arcari A., Bombelli M.C, Caiozzo P., Cuomo S., Merlo A.M., Ostillio M.C.


This paper represents the synthesis of parallel and methodically homogeneous research carried out by the Laboratorio Amornia of the SDA Bocconi School of Management, in part financed by this School and in part sponsored by a number of companies.

The guiding motivation of the work stems from the existence of the so-called glass ceiling which literature defines as the formally invisible top of the hierarchical career ladder beyond which women will not proceed.

The considerations which have been developed lead to some hypotheses concerning the reasons for the glass ceiling.


The hypotheses concerning the reasons for the glass ceiling are the following:

Management of the double presence hinders most women in making a career which demands too much dedication in time and energy for being reconcilable with family life.

A second hypothesis for this phenomenon of vertical segregation, however, concerns the leadership competences and style expected by the corporate cultures which implicitly demand that it be in male style: energetic, autocratic and not especially compatible with the style mostly found in women. Hence, we are dealing with discrimination even if it is frequently not done consciously.

The hypotheses can summed up as follows: The behavioural potential requested a managerial level in some corporate cultures is better represented by features such as reliability, gravitas and power which are implicitly considered as male.

This hypothesis is combined with another complementary one which emphasises female self-exclusion: women choose not to break through the glass ceiling as they are aware that their personal assets are unfavourable at the top of the organisation characterised by an aggressive, competitive atmosphere and total dedication to work. This hypothesis, even if belonging to the same thread , differs as it sees female choice as reductive and self depreciating.


After a first phase of collecting quantitative data from other sources a cross-section of which is shown in this paper, we proceeded by moving the focus of the inquiry to cultural topics from an ethnographic point of view. Thus, we chose the case method using multiple sources of data. This method seemed to allow an in-depth study of a single reality by using a common framework for the research of similarities and discordances.


A comparison between the European countries shows that while the male employment rate has been more or less the same, the differences in female employment rates are more pronounced: Italy has an employment rate for women of 42.0 % whereas the European average is 55.6%. It is the last country in the European Union.

The difference between men and women is profound in unemployment rates for males and females on a European average: women have an unemployment rate of 8.7%, men only of 6.9%.

In the nineties the unemployment rate for women in Italy was almost twice as high as that for men and has remained high over the years (in 2003 the male unemployment rate was 6.8%, the female rate 11.6%). On the one hand this vindicates the growth in female supply and the will to remain in or return to the labour market, on the other hand it shows the greater difficulty for women to find a job. In Italy only 16.9% of women work part-time against an average of 33.5% in the EU15. In female supervisory positions Italy again is the last in Europe.

The birth-rate in Italy is 1.24 children per woman against a European average of 1.51.


For the three hypotheses guiding our work we can make the following statements:

1st hypothesis:

Management of the double presence hinders most women in making a career which demands too much dedication in time and energy.

Our research makes it clear that family and hence, double presence are no objective obstacles to making a career. The women narrated stories of managed work and life balance situations very positively. However, this problem is still very present in the mind of male managers, especially those managing human resources.

Male management strongly emphasises the impossibility to reconcile, the cost created by absence, and the obstacles created by family sorrows that women bring to the workplace. Women in higher positions underline how reconciliation is partly jeopardized by the lack of childcare services but above all by the lack of services for the elderly and how their main difficulty is to convince their company that presence is not always the same as work and productivity.

Maternity is a complex topic for Italian women, proof of this is that Italy has the lowest birth-rate in the world. Maternity certainly is the primary worry of women, but at present we cannot - and our cases confirm this - attribute a univocal and rigid importance to this cause.

2nd hypothesis:

The behavioural potential requested a managerial level in some corporate cultures is better represented by features such as reliability, gravitas and power which are implicitly considered male characteristics.

This hypothesis was widely confirmed. In none of the analysed cases, though, was it explicit. It is more a cognitive bias of the management which values male attitudes positively such as dedicating unlimited time to work, a strong and certain style, the one-man show.

This theme is not new and concerns the action mode often linked to profound elements of the culture by which the majority in power excludes the minority. In the case of exclusion of women, a male model is upheld with the features listed above. Apart from some companies which have consciously followed a path of analysing their stereotypes, competences in team-oriented management, horizontal integration and shared leadership are given little value. Top management still often plays win – lose rather than win – win games.

This hypothesis in the research was enriched by some elements typical to Italian culture: the channels for recruiting. Those recruited to co-opt in the levels of power are almost never found through market channels but through personal or family relations. Someone is more easily taken on board, if they are known or are introduced by a trusted person rather than an unknown person who has been found by a head hunter. The absence of women in these informal circles perpetuates their absence at other levels.

3rd hypothesis:

As the top of organisation is characterised by an aggressive, competitive atmosphere and total dedication to work, women choose not to break through the glass ceiling as they are aware that their personal assets are unfavourable for such moves.

Also this hypothesis which is complementary to the second one has been confirmed. The completely male features of the top management lead to self-exclusion of women.

Women in high positions describe the great effort to face male concrete as well as symbolic power handling, to exercise aggressiveness they do not consider useful for the organisation or to build a support network for themselves.

Disregarding how much they are offered, women are, on average, less sensitive to the quantitative dimension of the reward system, either economically or symbolically.

Female competence for managing relations involve an ability for better understanding of the other's needs and hence, establish an ethic of responsibility, but also cause the difficulty to appropriately cover hierarchical positions.

These competences are useful, as they allow to build positive relations within the organisation, but are often overlooked in people management. However, they can become an obstacle for keeping the right distance in communication within the hierarchy.

This feature is also the source of the difficulty to manage female conflicts which leads to not knowing how to establish an open negotiating table.

The leadership problem is different even if complementary. Firstly there is a lack of role models which help to develop a special style. In addition, from a cultural point of view, it is strongly anchored in a vision of corporate leadership being a man's role.

Hence, the difficulties to find a suitable model and the difficulties to be accepted by followers. It does not appear univocal, confirming the literature, that women who have made it into important positions show a different leadership style. Also in our research it appears that in very strong and homogeneous cultures the female and male leadership styles are similar.


Change of the "time culture" has priority over the concrete design for job time and place.

Also the design of the operative personnel management systems needs attention. In particular it will be necessary to:

  • help managers to become aware of their own stereotypes and learn to handle them;

  • improve the awareness of those - also implicit - competences useful for the organisation in order to better evaluate people's contributions, especially that of women as intangible assets;

  • evaluate performance in terms of results reducing the emphasis on actionism and presence which can by themselves be the antithesis of good performance. The logic of career development has to be reviewed in a different light for men and women.

  • review the reward systems with an open mind leaving tradition behind and exploring more precisely the expectations of the people. Attention has to be paid to more intrinsic incentives for professional development concerning visibility, opportunities, atmosphere and relations . When re-planning incentives, it has to be take into account that the reward women appreciate most is time.

  • design support interventions for women in terms of training, mentoring or coaching in order to help them to face places which are not very woman-friendly, where the social dynamics are hostile to them. Also the ability to build a leadership style more consistent with their attitudes could be a useful field for training. Mentoring can be a useful tool for presenting role models as well as for support in the moments during the life cycle when women particularly feel different such as pregnancy and subsequent re-entry into their work environment.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page