23/08/2012 06:20 BST | Updated 23/08/2012 13:22 BST

Glass Ceiling: There Isn't Just One For Women, Says Ernst & Young, There Are Several

The difficulty women face in securing top jobs has long been summed up by the notion of a glass ceiling.

But new research shows that there isn’t just one – there are several.

A survey by professional services firm Ernst & Young of 1,000 UK working women between the ages of 18 to 60, revealed that two thirds believe they faced multiple barriers throughout their careers, rather than just a single ceiling on entry to the boardroom.

Based on the results, the study identified four key barriers to career progression for today’s working women - age, lack of role models, motherhood and qualifications and experience.

The study revealed that the barriers aren’t chronological and can be experienced at anytime, often several at once.

Delving into the findings behind the barriers, the survey identified age – perceived as either too young or too old – as being the biggest obstacle that women face during their careers.

Thirty-two per cent of women questioned said it had impacted on their career progression to date, with an additional 27% saying that they thought it would inhibit their progression in the future.

Most markedly it was women in the early stages of their career that seemed to be most acutely impacted – with half of all respondents between 18 and 23 saying age had been a barrier they’d already encountered in their career.

Barriers related to a lack of experience or qualifications also featured strongly in the survey.

It was the second highest factor that had inhibited women’s careers to date - according to 22% of respondents - and the third highest factor cited as a future inhibitor (19%).

The impact of becoming a mother on a career is well rehearsed and therefore it was unsurprising, if disappointing, that this was identified as a key barrier.

Nearly one in five (19%) of those questioned said it had impacted on their career to date. While a further 25% said they thought it was the second biggest inhibitor to their future careers, after age.

One person who felt she’d experienced this barrier for herself was 43-year-old Karen Mattison, MBE, the Oxford-educated founder of Timewise Jobs.

karen mattison

Mum's the word: Karen Mattison felt that being a mother impeded her career prospects

She became the CEO of a mental health charity by the age of 30, but after having the second of three children began to look for fulfilling work at her level of skill and ability, with part time hours that she could fit with family – but she found nothing.

She said: “After six months I realised that I hadn’t seen a single job ad to apply to. I searched and searched, but the only part time vacancies I saw were roles I was overqualified for.

“It was utterly dismaying, and I realised that thousands of other professional women and men, must face this classic dilemma. It felt as if there were only three stark choices available: work full time, and get a nanny. Work part time, but accept that you’ll need to slide five rungs down the career ladder in order to do so. Don’t work at all. It was an old problem with no solution.

Karen became increasingly frustrated with the status quo and so created a jobsite herself, from scratch, for people who need professional-level part time work.

She added: “I felt like I had been given the best education in the world, and was always striving to be the best I possibly could be. I had reached chief executive level and yet, for what? I simply could not find a job opening, with hours I could realistically work, where I could apply my full set of skills and experiences. Yet I was as ambitious as ever and still had my best years to give to an employer.”

Ernst & Young’s head of advisory, Harry Gaskell, said: “Gender diversity transcends the responsibility of government, business and individuals. There is no quick fix or magic bullet. It will take a combined effort, but the focus has to be on the talent pipeline rather than just on the boardroom.

“Positive interventions can work. But we think one of the most fundamental aspects of managing barriers is role models – for people to actively demonstrate that barriers can be over-come. If we can get this right, then perhaps the other barriers will become more manageable and less marked over time.”

The results of the survey follows the release of the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world - those females who have clearly smashed through every ceiling there is.

It puts German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the top spot, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at No2 and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at No3.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II came in at No26, a rise of 13 places from last year's list, while Harry Potter author J K Rowling was placed at No78.