Breaking Glass Ceilings

Seema Kumar

In 1839, French feminist and author George Sand wrote a play called Gabriel, in which she describes what happens to her heroine’s dreams of soaring with wings, like a female Icarus, as she tries to ascend above her accepted role. She encounters une voûte de cristal impénétrable, or an impenetrable crystal vault. Her wings collapse and she falls under the weight of the crystal closing in around her head.

Today, we modern day heroines may no longer feel encumbered by the crystal vault, but in its place is a sleek, paper thin, invisible glass ceiling that is just as impenetrable as we attempt to  reach beyond the limits of our accepted roles. 

Can we shatter the glass ceiling and soar high? The answer is yes. We have come a long way since 1939. More women today are in leadership positions than even a decade ago. In 1998 there was only one female CEO on the Fortune 500 list, and in 2008, there were 12, and today, we have a record 33 women CEOs on that list. The steady increase in the number of female CEOs represents progress, although the fact that women still represent only 6.6% of all Fortune 500 CEOs means there is more work to do.

More encouraging news comes from a recent report from Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works to accelerate women’s advancement. According to a Catalyst, women currently hold 27 (5.4%) of CEO positions at the S&P 500 companies, 11% are top earners, 12.2% have board seats and 26.5% are executive/senior level officials and managers, 36.9% are first/mid level officials and managers and women overall represent 44.7% of total employees of the S&P 500 companies.*Catalyst, Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies (September 1, 2019).

All in all, we have made progress, but we still have miles more to go, and light years more if you consider the number of women of South Asian origin. 

But there are bright spots and reason for optimism. Forbes’ recently published 100 Most Powerful Women List features 8 women of South Asian women from around the world. This includes women in politics, such as Nikki Haley, and writers like Mira Nair to actresses and singers like Priyanka Chopra and business women like Kiran Majumdar Shah. Like the women we profile on SEEMA.COM and SEEMA magazine, these South Asian Women are leaders in their own fields. As we continue to feature more and more women pioneers, we gain deep appreciation for the contributions of many leading South Asian women who have largely remained invisible.