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Dhaka Tribune

Cinderella and the great glass ceiling

Breaking barriers by elevating women’s involvement in the workplace

Update : 16 Jan 2024, 09:51 AM

Despite positive trends of economic development involving the female workforce, the glass ceiling phenomenon persists, limiting women's upward mobility in the workplace. This metaphorical barrier prevents women from advancing to higher levels in their careers due to deeply ingrained gender stereotypes. There is a noticeable gender disparity in leadership positions all over the world even after women have made substantial progress in workplace participation. Women are underrepresented in top management roles in public and private sectors. 

The glass ceiling manifests itself in subtle ways such as limited access to mentorship and lack of opportunities for career advancement including unequal pay. One of the significant challenges contributing to this are the societal outlooks regarding gender roles. Gender norms may hinder women from pursuing leadership roles as they are often expected to prioritize family responsibilities -- which many women may also choose -- over their careers and being boldly active in the workplace due to Cinderella syndrome or hidden dependency.

The term “Cinderella Complex” was commonly used by the author Colette Dowling back in the 1980s when she published a book with a similar name. She discussed that a woman’s sole identity lies in her beauty and vulnerability. Like Cinderella, women think their diligence and intelligence are not enough, and outside forces (or men) are supposed to arrive to save them. These fairy tales trickle into their consciousness, subtly influencing their desires, aspirations, and perceptions and disrupting their success and happiness, focusing less on careers, and hindering decision-making ability. 

For example, it’s problematic for the housewife who needs her husband’s permission to buy a dress; or for the career woman with a six-figure income who can’t sleep at night when her partner is not beside her. The Cinderella syndrome also leads to inappropriate behaviour in jobs or anxiety about success -- fearing that independence could lead to loss of femininity, as dependency seems to be inextricably linked with femininity. 

In the real world, this imaginary barrier manifests itself in disconcerting ways. Some studies reveal that this emotionally reluctant independence of women has a negative impact on their leadership role in the workplace. A woman hesitates to speak up in a meeting, dreading her words will sound high-pitched or harsh, and doubting her worthiness for promotion, as the innate belief murmurs in her ear that success is kept for others. With patriarchal expectations, women prioritize their appearance and gentle manner rather than choosing to be assertive and ambitious. Women act as proverbial glass slippers and are compelled against stepping into full gear and unleashing their potential.

Dowling offers a gleam of hope to overcome this complex, encouraging women to break free of the limitations imposed and to embrace their own dominion and individual development. She emphasizes nurturing self-confidence by rejoicing in achievements, identifying strengths, and neighbouring with helpful friends and mentors who elevate and inspire to pursue goals, along with embracing self-care by prioritizing physical and mental well-being. She highlights women's financial independence for economic freedom and ability to take risks and cherish passions. 

Dowling's argument is not that women should never rely on others or find support in relationships, but rather they should not depend solely on external factors to carry their sense of self-worth. By doing so, women can find happiness and fulfilment within themselves and can create healthier relationships with others based on mutual support and respect. However, creating inclusive work environments where diverse voices are heard and valued, organizations can foster a culture that embraces diversity by promoting open communication, challenging unconscious biases, and providing opportunities for expertise. 

Society should distinguish the value of women's contributions and work both from individuals and organizations to dismantle the barriers of such a Cinderella syndrome that affect glass ceiling. Against this backdrop, by challenging stereotypical attitudes, promoting an environment of diversity working together, mutual respect and tolerance, and implementing gender equality policy in organizations, a nation can unlock the potential of its workforce. 

In reality, ensuring equal opportunities, and encouraging a positive mindset for women in the workplace will not only benefit women but also contribute to the overall progress of the nation. 


Roksana Khan is an Additional Director at Bangladesh Institute of Governance and Management (BIGM).

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