Overcoming glass ceilings and sticky floors – promoting diversity through recruitment

Foreign backround women do not advance to careers corresponding to higher level education, despite language skills and Finnish degree.Today March 8 we are celebrating International Women’s Day with the theme women in leadership as announced by UN Women. In addition to celebrating women’s achievements, the day aims to raise issues where further progress is needed to achieve equality.

In this blog post, we introduce the metaphors of glass ceilings and sticky floors to describe existing obstacles in the career paths of women and women of foreign background in particular. We offer new tools to promote equity and equality in working life.

Limited by glass ceilings

Glass ceiling refers to invisible, often unacknowledged barriers to women’s career advancement. The higher the position, the fewer women there are. For example, the share of women among managing directors was only 8 percent in the listed companies in 2020.

The noticeable absence of women from top positions cannot be explained away as a lack of women’s career aspirations or qualifications. The pervasiveness of glass ceiling is an indication of structural gender discrimination at the highest levels of both public and private organizations. This discrimination severely limits women’s career opportunities compared to those of men.

Women with a foreign background are often particularly disadvantaged, regardless of their skills and education level.

According to the Survey on Work and Wellbeing among Persons of Foreign Origin (UTH), 43% of women of foreign background aged 25-54 are highly educated. Yet, many of these women cannot move past low-ranking positions in their careers, let alone reaching the highest levels. Thus, a valuable human resource remains severely underused.

Trapped by sticky floors

The term sticky floor is an apt metaphor to describe the barriers highly educated women of foreign background encounter in the labor market. While highly educated women generally have more employment opportunities than their peers with a lower education level, the jobs available to them do not often match their level of education. This is reflected in the share of highly educated women with foreign background who are overqualified for their jobs.

Alarmingly, the problem of overqualification persists for these women, even with Finnish degrees and high proficiency in Finnish (see the infographic above). Corresponding figures are similar for foreign-born and Finnish-born men.

More than one in three highly educated women of foreign background is overqualified for their current jobs compared to every fifth Finnish-born woman.

Being overlooked on the job market has health effects: highly educated persons of foreign background who are overqualified for their jobs have lower self-reported quality of life than those with a job corresponding to their education. In addition, experiences of workplace discrimination are significantly more common among those overqualified than among other employees.

It is in the interest of both individuals and society as a whole that sticky floors and glass ceilings are overcome. Structural barriers that unfairly disadvantage a certain group of people cannot be solved with individual-level efforts only. Organization-level action is needed.

New tools for organizations

Recruitment practices that take equality and non-discrimination into account are one way to overcome glass ceilings and sticky floors. The Manifold More -project released 10 recommendations for promoting diversity in recruitment.
How to promote diversity in recruitment (Ttl.fi)

Our project promotes diversity in expert organizations and advances the career paths of highly educated women of foreign background. At THL we have:

  • used the diversity clause in vacancy announcements to explicitly encourage applicants belonging to minorities to apply
  • advertised our open positions through social media, e.g. the International Working Women of Finland group on Facebook
  • critically assessed our language requirements by also opening our researcher positions for non-native Finnish speakers
  • applied a form of anonymous recruiting, by incorporating the anonymous evaluation of a research idea paper into our recruitment process.

It is no longer acceptable to think that talented professionals of different backgrounds would simply not exist in Finland. As employers, we need to do more to provide career paths, recruit diversity and foster inclusion in our workplaces.

We invite you to follow us on Twitter @moninaisesti as we share our progress and offer research-based tools and solutions.

The Manifold More project is funded by the European Social Fund (ESF).


Hülya Yüksel
Project researcher
Equality Unit, THL

Mia Teräsaho
Development manager
Equality Unit, THL

Shadia Rask
Research manager
Equality Unit, THL

More information:

Manifold more – Leverage to the professional careers of immigrant background women (Thl.fi)

Gender matters? (Thl.fi)

Infographics on equality in economic and political decision-making (Thl.fi)

How to promote diversity in recruitment (Ttl.fi)

International Working Women of Finland

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