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Top 7 signs a company doesn't have a glass ceiling

Rather than avoiding organizations with cultural barriers that prohibit career advancement, seek businesses that show they welcome anyone dedicated to moving up the career ladder. These positive signposts are a healthy way to start.

Far too many women working in technical careers are still crashing into glass ceilings. By definition, the ceilings are translucent or even transparent, so they're difficult to detect before you hit one of them hard. Then, boom!

However, in the best job environments for women—and anyone for whom the term “diversity” is personally relevant—a ceiling isn’t even there.

It’s one thing for a woman to look for a job where she’ll be comfortable doing the work. The bar is raised, however, for ambitious women who want to move up the career ladder. Here are seven signs you’re entering a glass-free place and advice about how to determine if these positive attributes apply.

The positive indications apply beyond women-in-IT circles, of course; everyone benefits from indications that the career opportunities are genuine. Plus, a commitment to diversity in human background suggests that the company is open to not-the-usual-answers in product development, too.

If you recognize your employer in these attributes, take a moment to appreciate that fact. If you’re in the executive suite yourself, contemplate how well you communicate these strengths to would-be employees.

1. The company holds a solid track record in hiring and promoting women, ideally with women in top management.

The best way to know if you can get ahead in a company is to see "people like you" who already have done so. When women are at the top, it’s easy to assume that they welcome more ambitious women. And that’s true whether those women “at the top” are senior technologists, project managers, or in the C-suite.

One engineer—let’s call her Susanna – left a position at a major tech enterprise after sensing she had hit a glass ceiling. She concluded that she would never achieve an executive role, “especially given that there were zero women above me in the hierarchy.”

Before moving on to a new position at another tech giant, Susanna sought out companies with women working in jobs that appealed to her. “I'm now an executive-level engineer solving my favorite engineering problems,” Susanna told me. “My VP and SVP are both women and amazingly talented leaders and sponsors to me and others. I've built a wonderful engineering team under me that is half female, and I have been able to successfully sponsor amazing talent toward more senior and impactful roles."

"Find a company with already visible signs that women are thriving. This can mean that women are in senior, C-level, founder, or board positions and have real tenure at the company," says Elizabeth Douglas, CEO of wikiHow, a major how-to website.

Another gentle metric is the balance between male and female counterparts in every role. “One high-ranking female does not pass this litmus test if remaining lower leadership positions are still filled by men,” Douglas adds.

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It isn’t always obvious when women are in powerful positions, but online searches can help.

Everyone tells you to research a company before you apply for a job. One of those tasks should be to look at corporate management. For example, before quality assurance tester Monika Kamoda accepted her job at Zety, a careers website previously known as Uptowork, she checked the company’s LinkedIn profile and discovered that two out of five teams were managed by women.

One woman had been hired to Zety directly to a team lead position, while the other one progressed to team leader from an internship within a two-year time span. “That was a clear indicator to me that women are appreciated here and offered equal chances to move up in their career paths,” Kamoda says.

Another way to identify female company leaders is to look at the company website's “About Us” section or company brochures, suggests Ketan Kapoor, CEO and co-founder of Mettl, an HR technology and talent measurement firm.

The results of such research can sometimes be misleading, however, points out Parna Sakar, vice president of marketing for the professional association Women in Technology International (WITI). “Today, some companies are hurriedly putting women on their websites in order to be perceived as promoting women,” she says. Sakar recommends you dig to see when the page was updated and who the company spotlights.

2. The company practices "inclusionism."

To address parity issues, some companies are adopting a practice known as "inclusionism," which embraces gender diversity as well as diversity across lines such as race, nationality, religion, culture, sexual orientation, and disabilities.

"There’s a misconception that only women-owned companies can provide an environment without glass ceilings; this is not the case," contends Nick H. Kamboj, founder and CEO of Aston & James, a technology advisory firm.

One element in the inclusionist mindset is that men in corporate leadership positions should act as "allies" to women, says Karen Catlin, author of "Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces."

“By being mindful of inclusion and diversity throughout the workplace, company culture can truly shine. Welcoming cultural differences isn’t sufficient, though; job seekers should look for companies that encourage the actual sharing and appreciation of those cultures,” says Linda Crawford, CEO of Helpshift, which provides a customer support platform and in-app support software.

Wanting to be supportive of change and actually achieving that goal are somewhat different things. Don’t expect perfection at all times. "We’ve all been there. Wanting to show our support for diversity but saying the wrong thing. Or writing a quick message and using gendered language by mistake. Or laughing at an off-color joke. Perhaps we've been a bystander who ignored some sexist or otherwise offensive behavior and, in hindsight, we know we should have called it out," Catlin says.

Although inclusionism is a hot buzzword these days, companies’ adoption of the concept varies. “Some don’t even have it on their radar, while some are doing a lot. Some talk about inclusionism but only pay lip service to the idea,” Catlin notes.

"When interviewing with C-suite members, why not ask them about a time when they didn’t take action to support someone from a marginalized group or when they didn’t push back against non-inclusive behaviors and what they learned from that experience about how to be a better ally?” Catlin suggests. “Their answers help you evaluate whether there are allies in the C-suite."

3. Equal pay is a given.

It ought to go without saying that a woman’s pay should be the same as a man’s pay for the same title or role. Yet, according to a recent survey by tech job platform Hired, in the U.S., men are offered more money for the same position 63 percent of the time. On average, too, companies offer women 4 percent less than men for the same role. Black and Latina women fare even worse.

One way to ascertain whether men and women are treated fairly is to see how easily that information can be gathered. Is that guy down the hall who holds the same title but has less seniority taking home a heftier paycheck? A starting point is to look at salaries for specific jobs at specific companies, as listed on websites such as Glassdoor and Indeed.

Salaries should be transparent within the company, too. "My company has an open salary policy. Anyone can see [the numbers] at any time. It promotes productivity and eliminates conflict,” writes Rodney Hill in a Google+ discussion.

The company should conduct salary reviews on an ongoing basis. "Honestly, what Salesforce.com is doing with constant reviews of salary and stock options is the only excellent example in tech that I know of, and they have a white dude CEO who is simply determined to be an ally,” one woman pointed out in a Slack discussion.

Yet, although Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has helped to pave the way, more companies now review salaries regularly, Catlin observes. Helpshift, for example, reviews all employee salaries twice annually, says Crawford.

RackWare, a hybrid cloud platform provider, also reviews salaries every six months, says CEO Sash Sunkara; wikiHow reviews salaries once a year.

4. Company benefits are family-friendly and encourage personal advancement.

Sure, more dads might be stepping to the plate, but the fact is that moms still perform more child care in most families, particularly when kids are very young. To ease trade-offs between career and family, companies that want to banish the glass ceiling are likely to offer perks beyond vacation and healthcare plans, such as paid maternity and family leave, work-at-home options, flex time, paid time off for elder care, and on-site or nearby subsidized day care. 

Such benefits “reveal a lot about the company’s gender sensitivity and women empowerment policies at the workplace,” Mettl's Kapoor says.

Also, look for customizable training or education compensation. A training budget was a strong incentive for Zety's Kamoda to accept her job offer, because it indicated the company was willing to invest in her growth. “There's no limit to the budget. If I can justify the need for a certain training program or attendance at a conference and prove that it will help me to develop skills, I will get the funds granted.”

5. Mentoring is available, if you want it.

Mentorship can happen either formally or informally, at any stage of your career. “It really starts at the top—because as more women are hired as engineers, executives, and CEOs at tech companies, equal pay and increased diversity throughout the workforce will follow suit. Women in positions of power must hire other women and mentor other women so we all rise together," Crawford says.

Companies run a variety of formal mentorship programs: female-to-female, male-to-male, cross-gender, one-to-one, and many-to-many. However, formal mentorship programs are much more common in large organizations, according to Sakar.

To help fill the mentoring gap, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg founded the Lean-In Foundation in 2013, with a goal of supporting women in the workplace through community, education, and “circles,” or small and coordinated peer groups of women and men that meet regularly to “learn and grow together.” Discussions often revolve around gender issues.

In and of itself, however, an internal mentoring program isn’t a fair test as to the existence of a glass ceiling, according to Catlin. She adds, “Don’t ask C-level executives whether they’ve approved mentorship programs. Ask them what they’re doing to actually mentor.”

Not everyone is a fan of formal mentoring programs, which can be seen as forcing employees into relationships as mentors or mentees. Yet many upwardly mobile women encourage workers to ask one another for mentorships, even if the term is never used. Crawford urges people to choose mentors who can help them broaden their knowledge base. An engineering manager, for instance, might ask a finance pro for a mentorship. “If you’re working in the C-suite, you need to know as much as possible about as many aspects as possible,” Crawford maintains.

It’s important to get advice when you see something wrong or uncomfortable. Execs may tout an open-door policy (and do their best to make it safe to walk in that door). In successful organizations, expect to find trusted channels for voicing concerns, with formal and established HR processes for employees to report grievances or unfair treatment and file complaints or requests for investigations. Many also have forums, led by female execs, that address the appropriate processes for dealing with pay equity issues.

“Employees can also talk to their direct managers, their leadership teams, or our HR folks,” says RackWare’s Sunkara. “If there’s an issue, let’s talk about it. Otherwise, it can blow up, and we don’t want to lose our talent.”

6. There are clear pathways to success.

“Our company has developed a clear structure to give equal and fair opportunities for each employee to work towards career progression,” says Kamoda. “This structure places an employee on a certain level [be it a junior, medium, or senior position] according to skills gained. It then shows exactly what has to be achieved and improved in order to move up to a higher position. Specific targets are set and so is the timeline to reach those. So whoever wishes to get promoted knows exactly which way to go.”

A clear structure for career progression can be a big help in leveling the playing field, Catlin says. It’s a lot fairer than the traditional method of offering new opportunities to buddies in personal or professional networks. (Of course, you should be growing your own network, too, she adds.)

“There are still very few women in engineering, if you look at the numbers. There aren’t many women on management boards. But we’re putting a focus on investing in women. You’re kind of a rare commodity, and we want to change that,” Sunkara says.

RackWare’s motives aren’t purely altruistic. Diversity spurs innovation. “This will give us a competitive edge in our market. We don’t want just one group of people to be developing our product,” Sunkara explains.

7. Recognition and support come from on high, regularly.

Companies can give official recognition by assigning women to speak at conferences, represent the organization at job fairs, and spearhead important projects.

At Helpshift, for example, Crawford gives employees assignments that stretch their skills and better equip them for C-suite positions down the road. All eight members of the leadership team—four women and four men—attend board meetings.

Female project leaders should receive face time with both clients and company leaders to discuss those projects. Direct managers should make a point of singling out major contributors to top management for special recognition.

“Join a company where the person you are reporting directly to shows signs of wanting to help you to advance, regardless of their gender,” suggests wikiHow’s Douglas. “The glass ceiling exists when the ladder is blocked; work for people who are fully supportive of you, your growth, and your aspirations.”

If you’re interviewing for a job opening at a company, you’ll definitely meet with your prospective direct manager. You’re likely to meet up, too, with folks in higher levels of the hierarchy. Ask everyone, especially the direct manager, lots of questions about how they can support you in fulfilling your career goals. And after you accept the job, keep asking.

If you need more guidance: In 2016, a team of women, including well-known Silicon Valley engineers Tracy Chou and Erica Baker, founded ProjectInclude.org, which provides recommendations to companies on how to be more inclusive of women and other marginalized groups. Recommendations cover areas such as defining and implementing culture, writing a code of conduct, hiring, compensating fairly, and training.

No glass ceiling for women: Lessons for leaders

To find out whether a prospective employer has a glass ceiling, follow these steps:

  • Use LinkedIn and company websites to identify and contact women leaders at the company.
  • Use tools like Glassdoor and Indeed to determine if a company’s pay rates are in your ballpark.
  • When you interview, pay particular attention to what hiring managers say about how they will support you in whatever you want to achieve.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.