‘Do employer preferences contribute to sticky floors?’

Professor Stijn Baert

Sticky floors

Ambitious women are held back not only by glass ceilings, but also by sticky floors. “Compared to men, women appear less likely to start climbing the career ladder.”

The glass ceiling is a barrier so subtle that it is transparent, yet it is still strong enough to prevent women from moving up the corporate hierarchy. There is another barrier – albeit less well known – on the corporate ladder: sticky floors. Professor Stijn Baert conducted research on sticky floors and was the keynote speaker at the Diversity Symposium at Leiden University on 1 December 2016. He says: “There’s a recognised pattern that, compared to men, women are less likely to start climbing the career ladder. While glass ceilings are barriers at the top of an organisation, sticky floors tend to make their presence felt lower down, at the beginning of a career. They’re the evil brother of the well-known concept of the glass ceiling.”



To prove the existence of sticky floors, Baert conducted an experiment. “We went undercover in the labour market. In our experiment, we sent pairs of fictitious job applicants, both male and female Bachelors in Business Administration and Masters in Business Economics, to real job vacancies in Belgium.” The vacancies were real, at existing companies, and the jobs being advertised included jobs where the level would remain the same and others that implied a promotion in terms of occupational level and job authority. Baert’s fictitious job applicants all had the same degree and five years of experience.


He was curious whether the companies would respond differently to male or female applicants. Would women get fewer invitations for a job interview, or would there be no significant difference between the response the men and women received?


Hiring discrimination

“We did find significant evidence of hiring discrimination against women, but only when they applied for jobs at a higher level - jobs that implied a promotion. For these jobs, the women received significantly fewer positive reactions or invitations for a job interview compared to the men.”


The reasons why the women were penalized is something we can only hazard a guess at. Research indicates that employers are reluctant to hire women because they fear the women’s productivity will go down once they have  children. Moreover, that fear exists regardless of whether a female employee is planning a family or not. “It’s known as the career penalty of motherhood,” Baert says.


Success and failure factors

“The existence of the career penalty of motherhood was proven years ago, in another experiment in Belgium. Lesbian and heterosexual women, each group equally qualified, applied for job vacancies. When considering women of childbearing age, the companies preferred hiring the lesbian women and the evidence pointed in the direction of motherhood.”


During the five years of undercover research in the labour market, Stijn Baert and his team conducted  field experiments not only on gender discrimination, but also on discrimination on other grounds. “We sent out 15,000 fictitious job applications and set a number of categories of failure and success factors. In terms of job opportunity, an attractive Facebook profile seems to be a success factor. Job applicants with an attractive picture got significantly more call backs from employers. Older age is a failure factor, as well as disability, and poor mental or physical health. A migrant background can also be a failure factor, unless you have volunteered at mainstream organisations.”



How can these problems of discrimination based on gender, disability or age be adequately addressed? “We need to keep doing research on this topic in order to encourage debate at academic as well as societal level.

Although discrimination is generally illegal, such practices are prevalent in most countries, just as they are in Belgium. However, equal employment opportunity laws are hard to enforce. At any event, without constant pressure from the outside and strong legal remedies, it will be tough to address the problems of discrimination adequately.”

“Why do sticky floors exist? There may be differences in human capital. It’s also possible that there are differences in employee preferences, as well as employer preferences.”

‘Not surprised by this research’

“I’m afraid I’m not surprised by this research. But even without the statistical data, if you’re dealing with health issues, unemployment, a migrant background, a disability, or if you are considered too old - unfortunately we all know that it will be very hard building a career or even finding a job.”



Eliza Steinbock

Researcher, Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University


‘Curious to learn more’


“Baert’s talk left me with something of an uneasy feeling… I’m curious to learn more about his research. I don’t think I discriminate and I believe I treat everyone the same way, but that’s probably what those employers think too. That’s why it’s so important to be open to diversity. As a teacher I can pass this message on to my students.”


Ewan Tehupuring

Lecturer Entrepreneurship & Innovation at HAN University of Applied Sciences


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