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The glass ceiling is a subject that engenders strong emotions in those who have been affected by it. A telephone call requesting information on the glass ceiling elicited the following response from a female staff member of a congressional committee: "You want to study the glass ceiling? Just come to the Hill." (On this issue, see, for example, Morin, 1993.)
The strong sentiments evoked by the glass ceiling have been attributed to the evolution of women's roles in the workplace and the larger society. The female management style has been defined as a positive virtue, and magazines have hailed it as standard setting and empowering (Austin, 1992; Wangensteen, 1997). Nevertheless, women continue to find that their leadership styles are met with skepticism by male colleagues (Oldenburg, 1995), and they consistently receive lower ratings than their male counterparts (Cohen-Kaner, 1995). In short, they have encountered the invisible glass ceiling.
The study presented here relied on women's words and views of the existence and manifestations of the glass ceiling in human service organizations. Six focus groups were conducted to obtain information about the effects of informal practices and organizational climates on the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of women. A qualitative analysis was then conducted, and areas of consensus were identified. Although all of the focus-group participants had careers in the human services, not all were social workers. The auspices of their employment also varied, from governmental agencies to nonprofit agencies to universities and to the private for-profit sector.
The glass ceiling is defined as "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward into management level positions" (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991, p. 1). Extensive research revealed the existence of the glass ceiling in both the private and public sectors (Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995a; U.S. Department of Labor, 1991; U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 1992).
A 1996 study of human service agencies (Gibelman, 1997a, 1997b) revealed a pattern of discrimination in the nonprofit sector that is consistent with the results of studies on the public and private sectors. The study found that in a cross-section of 75 responding nonprofit human service agencies with 4,596 professional employees, men were disproportionately represented in management, particularly upper level management, whereas women were disproportionately represented at the direct-service and lower management levels. In addition, men earned higher salaries than women at all but the lowest levels of the hierarchy of these organizations (Gibelman, 1997b). An earlier study based on an analysis of the 1991 membership of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) similarly revealed the existence of a glass ceiling, as well as pay inequities, in social work (Gibelman & Schervish, 1993,1995).
In this article, the human services refer to the formally organized health, educational, and social welfare activities that aim to maintain or improve human well-being. Human service organizations, the vehicles through which human services are provided, may be public (governmental) at the federal, state, or local level; proprietary (for-profit); or nonprofit. The underlying values of the human service professions, including humanitarianism, charity, and the belief in human rights and human well-being, would suggest that representative organizations would voluntarily and systematically seek to adhere to the principle of nondiscrimination in their labor force practices. However, the existence of a glass ceiling has been identified in such diverse areas as law, social work, academia, science, medicine, advertising, investing, personnel management, insurance, and nursing management, among others (Bernstein, 1996; Converse & Converse, 1981; Cordes, 1992; Cotton, 1992; Crawford, 1993; Danzig & Wells, 1993; Gibelman & Schervish, 1993, 1997; Gooch, 1994; Hornig, 1980; Laabs, 1993; Matthews, 1993; Miller, 1993; Sowers-Hoag & Harrison, 1991; Torrey, 1994; Walsh, 1995). A study by the American Bar Association (Bernstein, 1996) revealed that "despite surging numbers of female lawyers, bias against women remains entrenched in the legal profession and results in steep inequities of pay, promotion, and opportunity" (p. A9).
The growing empirical base confirming the continued existence of the glass ceiling suggests the need to understand the dynamics of this phenomenon. Despite the gains that women have made over the years in the labor force, in large part owing to the women's movement, enabling court decisions, and legislative policy, it is clear that an ongoing strategy must be devised to overcome barriers to the advancement of women.
The focus group is a qualitative research tool for collecting data through guided discussion of a specific topic (Rubin & Babbie, 1997). It has been described as a "remarkably flexible research tool [which] provides a rich and detailed set of data about perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and impressions of group members in the members' own words" (Stewart & Shamdasani, 1990, p. 140). What is distinctive about the focus group is "the explicit use of the group interaction to provide data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction found in a group" (Morgan, 1988, p. 12). The use of focus groups allows researchers to identify the nuances and issues in hiring and promotion practices from the perspective of all concerned--the employees and organizational decision makers.
The six focus groups that were held between November 1995 and June 1996 included 52 practitioners, …