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The Internal Glass Ceiling

I shared my views on the “double glazed glass ceiling” before for quieter professional women. There’s an extra glazing due to their quieter nature and society’s judgements about being quieter. If you are in another minority group – like being culturally diverse, LGBTI, older, younger, have a disability – it could be triple glazed or more…


There are systemic, conscious and unconscious biases to deal with when you’re in the minority, many of which are written and spoken about.


There’s another ceiling, though. The Internal Glass Ceiling.


This ceiling gets installed and thickened through the everyday conditioning at home, school, religious institutions, media and society to “be a good girl”, “be polite and nice”, “not do anything risky”, “not show off”, that “you’re too bossy”, “you’re too quiet”, “quieter people don’t make good leaders”, “you have to work harder than others to get ahead if you’re in the minority” etc… These messages get installed as “you can’t do xx”, “you don’t deserve to xx”, “you shouldn’t take risks”, “you’re bragging or you’re too bossy, that’s not nice”, “you’re not leadership material”, “you’re too quiet”, “you’re not good enough”, “you have to be an extrovert to get ahead” (see Do you have to be an extrovert to get ahead?). Psychologists call this “internalised marginalisation”.


Some of the voices end up as “I’m happy where I am” even though you have the potential and a trickle of ambition buried somewhere inside. You can be conditioned not to dream and be ambitious and turns into “learned helplessness”. Not only do systems and biases work against you, your internal ceiling is working against you as well.


Often, this internal glass ceiling gets installed without you knowing.



A new job opportunity comes up. Two qualified people, one male, the other female, thinks about applying. You’ve heard the story – a man will apply if he meets 60% of the criteria, women will only apply if she meets 100%. I keep hearing this at almost every talk to do with gender diversity. And then the usual advice is – women need to ‘be more confident’, ‘back themselves’ and ‘believe in themselves’ – none of which really helps. (see Don’t tell me to ‘be more confident’)


I heard that the source of this comment about women not putting themselves forward, a study by Hewlett Packard, has not actually been found. How this comment keeps getting told as truth is also unhelpful as it adds to the unhelpful internal dialogue. It gets installed internally as “Women aren’t confident in putting themselves forward. I’m a woman. No wonder I don’t feel confident.” It reinforces what we don’t want (see What if the problem is TOO MUCH FOCUS on women’s lack of confidence?).


You didn’t choose to have the ceiling installed, so it’s not your fault. This is where efforts to “fix women” can thicken our internal glass ceiling even more. As Catherine Fox says in her latest book, we need to Stop Fixing Women.

How aware are you of the internal glass ceiling – single, double or triple glazed? When I’ve worked with women, some are not aware of their inner voices. Some voices are so ingrained that we’re unconscious of them and how they are driving us. Others are aware of the inner voices that play like a broken record, but haven’t found ways to deal with them.


When we are not aware of these voices, they are in the driver’s seat.


You have to take back the driver’s seat if you wish to fulfil your potential. And, if we want to break the various ceilings – glass, double glazed, bamboo and any others. Unfortunately, we have to do more inner work than those who don’t face ceilings. On the other hand, we are fortunate that we need to do the inner work as it will make us better leaders!

We don’t need fixing, we need to take back the driver’s seat.


If you’re ready to tackle your internal glass ceiling and inner voices, head to my Quietly Powerful web page, read my White paper: Quietly Powerful – get your talents recognised and succeed on your own terms as a quieter professional woman, watch my free video “succeeding because of your quieter nature, not in spite of it” to see what you could do.

Quietly Powerful Women (QPW) movement aims to help quieter women to succeed authentically, with the bigger aim of helping us to expand the definition of what good leadership looks like.


Related articles:

Why we tell ourselves "I can't" rather than "I can"

Confidence is NOT the answer

Quietly Powerful – an oxymoron or truth

Introversion is not a disorder and femininity does not equal weak

Are you covering your quieter self?

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