From A “Steel” Ceiling To A “Glass” Ceiling: Professional “Ideal Workers” In Mexico

by Krista Brumley

Professional women in Mexico have made advances in the workplace. The glass ceiling limits their advancement, however, even when they are “ideal workers” – rational, strong leaders with few familial responsibilities. I conducted 55 interviews with women and men at a Mexican-owned multinational corporation to understand how employees perceived workplace changes resulting from the increasing demands of a competitive global marketplace. 

The company I studied was a paternalistic workplace, with centralized authority, a rigid hierarchy, and traditional views on work and family roles. It offered extensive benefits, including an onsite hospital, daycare, and recreation center, offsite K-12 school, and housing, car, and education loans.

Under the company’s paternalistic work culture, women experienced an impassable, opaque steel ceiling that limited them to low levels and/or forced them out. Whereas men were rewarded with lifelong employment and seniority advancement, women were required to quit if they married or had children.brumley_image1

Women should not take the place of men at work; it was best that the woman was home with her children

When the Mexican economy opened in the 1990s, the company transformed. Employees described the “new work culture” as efficient, collaborative, and competitive. Women could also now keep their jobs after marrying and having children.

Employees talked about tension between the paternalistic and competitive work cultures, and how the company struggled to “become global.” Both women and men described the “ideal worker” as someone who worked long hours and produced results, obtained the right skills and knowledge, and was ambitious. They also believed employees still had to show loyalty and respect for leadership. However, in reality, the company’s expectations played out differently for women and men.

Men took their visibility for granted and expected advancement, even if they advanced slowly. Assumed to be good workers, men were promoted on potential. Men believed fewer women advanced because they lacked professionalism and the “right” credentials.

Now, most women want a career. This changes things, but they have to show responsibility at work…..If women work and develop themselves, then tomorrow there will be more women here.

Brumley_image2Women thought that “all things equal, men were advantaged.” Rather than promoted on potential, women were promoted on performance. They believed they were under constant surveillance and had to work twice as hard as men to succeed.

In the company’s competitive work culture, women experience a glass ceiling. It slows and limits advancement, but the next level is visible and the ceiling may be permeable if women fit the ideal.

I argue that the hybrid work culture embraces both paternalism and competition, reflecting the importance of loyalty and respect, and a gendered structure reinforcing inequality as professional women navigated the shift from a steel ceiling to a glass ceiling.

Krista Brumely is assistant professor of sociology at Wayne State University. Her article, “The Gendered Ideal Worker Narrative: Professional Women’s and Men’s Work Experiences in the New Economy at a Mexican Company,” is published in the December 2014 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here


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