Mary Barra became the first woman to lead the development of new cars and trucks at General Motors Co., the world's largest automaker. Statistics show just 14 percent of executive officer positions in Fortune 500 companies were held by women in 2011.
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DETROIT -- Mary Barra made history last year when she became the first woman to lead the development of new cars and trucks at General Motors Co., the world's largest automaker. In January, Virginia Rometty took over as CEO of IBM, the first woman to head the technology giant in its 101-year history.
These milestones in male-dominated industries are raising new questions about women's advancement in the workplace.
Does the glass ceiling still exist, or is it an outdated metaphor that fails to acknowledge the progress women have made?
Nearly three decades after the introduction of the glass-ceiling metaphor, many women say the glass ceiling is very much intact, pointing to data that show women last year held just 14 percent of all executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies.
But others disagree, citing advances made by women in recent years. And some contend that the glass ceiling should be replaced by a different metaphor.
When asked if a glass ceiling still exists for women, Ms. Barra, GM's senior vice president of global product development, said, "I don't think so. I've never seen it or felt it in my career."
She acknowledged the small percentage of women in top executive positions but said she expects the situation will improve, noting that "it's just a matter of time."
Linda Carli, a psychology professor at Wellesley College and an expert on gender discrimination, sees things differently. She said women still face major workplace hurdles, but she wouldn't describe them as a glass ceiling. She thinks a labyrinth is a better metaphor.
"There are women getting to very high places, and yet the rest of us are still floundering," Ms. Carli said.
No matter where you stand on the issue of a glass ceiling, there's no denying that women are underrepresented in the top echelons of corporate America, and they continue to earn less money than men.
In Toledo, Libbey Inc. named Stephanie A. Streeter the company's first female chief executive officer.
Ms. Streeter became the first female chief executive of a local publicly traded company since Candy Graham headed the former Mid-Am Bank Corp. with the title of president in 1993.
There are other female CEOs of local companies that are privately held, and other high-ranking female executives at several local firms.
Though women make up nearly half the work force, they accounted for only 7.5 percent of the top-earning executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies last year, according to Catalyst, a New York-based research organization that seeks to expand business opportunities for women.
It also found that women held only 16 percent of board seats at these large companies. And more than a quarter of the Fortune 500 had no female executive officers.
Women also continue to lag behind men when it comes to pay. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in 2010 earned 81 percent of the median weekly earnings of their male counterparts.
Last fall, Catherine Weinberger, an economist at the University of California-Santa Barbara, published research showing that women at the top of corporate ladders see their salaries flatten while their male counterparts' earnings keep rising.
Experts blame a number of factors for the pay disparity and the small numbers of women in executive suites and boardrooms.
The list includes discrimination, less access to informal corporate networks, inequities in family responsibilities, gender stereotypes, and a lack of negotiating skills when it comes to pay and promotions.
The deep recession hasn't helped women either. In a 2008 study, Catalyst found that women in senior management positions were three times more likely to lose their jobs than men in similar positions.
"The number of women in top leadership roles has been essentially static over the last few years," said Cynthia Good, CEO of Little PINK Book, which sends out emails about women's career issues to 80,000 people every business day. "It continues to be a boys' club."
Ms. Good has calculated that if things continue at their current rates, it will take 233 years before there are equal numbers of men and women CEOs in the Fortune 500.
After Avon Products' Andrea Jung steps down as CEO this year, the Fortune 500 will have just 17 women CEOs.
With these kinds of statistics, it's no surprise that the glass ceiling metaphor hasn't disappeared. But Ms. Carli, the Wellesley professor, said the glass ceiling wrongly implies that women face a single, unknown obstacle at the pinnacle of their careers.
Once the ceiling is shattered, the metaphor suggests, the path lies open for all women.
A labyrinth, on the other hand, acknowledges that there are many different paths to the top, and with persistence and hard work many women can make it through, Ms. Carli said. Instead of smashing the ceiling, the goal is to break down the labyrinth's high walls so that women emerge with the same opportunity that men do: a road with hills and valleys.
"Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one's progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead," Ms. Carli and Alice Eagly, a Northwestern University professor, wrote in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article.
To ensure that women don't get stuck in the labyrinth or hit the glass ceiling, experts say several things must happen. For starters, companies need to set up metrics to ensure that qualified women get promotions to top jobs. Doing this will not only help women but also improve companies' bottom lines, studies have shown.
Women also need to step up by changing the way they pursue their careers, said Ms. Good of Little PINK Book. She urges women to document their successes, build relationships with key corporate leaders, and ask for the pay raises and jobs they want.
"Women are not asking for the opportunities," Ms. Good said. "Be part of the conversation."
In the past three years, Catalyst has seen a growing number of CEOs sponsor female executives by recommending them for key assignments, making sure their achievements are noticed by other senior executives, providing career guidance, and taking other steps to ensure that women don't get overlooked for promotions.
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