Research Evidence about Sticky Floors (affecting women)

Sticky floors have become the evil brother of glass ceilings for women in the workplace. They describe mechanisms that make it more difficult for women than for men to leave their current positions in a upward direction. New evidence for this has now been added to the body of research

While the glass ceiling phenomenon includes a strong component regarding the perception of women in senior or top management positions, the sticky floor dynamic focuses on initial management level at the bottom of the hierarchy. A number of previous studies were, however, not able to determine whether sticky floors actually result from gender differences or whether they are created through preferences on the employer’s side – or even of the employees, as some – slightly stereotypical – theories suggest. A new study in Belgium has now focused on this aspect by analysing the influence of employers’ preferences by keeping employee characteristics constant.

Statistical evidence of sticky floors

In their article, Baert, de Pauw and Deschacht present previous studies that carried out historical analysis of the Panel Study of Belgian Households data (1994 to 2001). They revealed that women on higher level in an organisation face fewer obstacles to promotions than women on lower and middle ones. They also mention that Belgium is one of the 12 European countries where evidence for sticky floors was found through gender wage gap analysis. They wanted to add a significant piece of research by performing a randomised field experiment to test whether hiring discrimination based on gender varies according to whether the job implies a promotion (from the current position).

A robust research methodology

The experiment was conducted between October 2013 and March 2014 in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. The researchers randomly selected two groups of 288 job offers each from the private sector requiring a maximum of 5 years of experience. One group of job offers was for Bachelors in Business Administration, the other one for Masters in Business Economics. The researcher used jobs that require up to five years of experience because sticky floors are related to earlier phases of a career. Also, targeting candidates with up to five years of experience is expected to be more heterogeneous in promotion aspects compared to starter jobs.

They then submitted two pairs of applications, where in each pair two profiles were similar in terms of key qualification characteristics but different in terms of gender. In total, the researchers sent out 576 pairs of fictitious job applications with about five years of relevant experience aiming at a job that requires at least some and at most five years of experience. The researchers paid attention to many details regarding the candidates’ education, names or soft skills.

By monitoring the reactions, they were able to identify unequal treatment based on this single characteristic. No earlier study had aimed at showing heterogeneity in labour-market discrimination by whether or not a hire would imply a promotion. Measurement of callbacks was differentiated according to the specifics of the callback (invitation versus request for more information or alternative vacancies).

Results confirm sticky floor phenomenon

The researchers present two main results, each differentiated by the nature of the callbacks

At the level of the total data set, the positive callback rate in the strict sense was found to be 11% for male and 10% for female candidates (26% vs. 25% for callback in the broad sense). As the ratios are not significantly different, the researchers conclude that the employers did not discriminate based on gender.

  • However, when applying for a job at a higher level, males received 50% more invitations (callback in the strict sense) and 23% more positive reactions (callbacks in the broad sense) than women candidates. In other words, female candidates received 33% less invitations and 19% fewer positive reactions.

Overall, the researcher confirmed their hypothesis about hiring discrimination against women when they apply for jobs at a higher level than their current one. This statement (concerning gender) is confirmed as they did not find significantly unequal treatment using the promotion dimension related to job authority. Each of the 576 vacancies to which they had sent applications was matched with indicators of the occupational level and job-authority level (no supervision, with supervision, with supervision and influence on wage and promotion). In addition, several regression analysis excluded possible statistical biases that might have occurred.