Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling – can businesses really crack it? Or is it down to us?

As a business psychologist, most of my time a day is spent working with clients to develop capability in their business. High on the agenda is female progression. There is good reason.

A recent article in the HuffPost   written by Caroline Turner of DifferenceWORKS, LLC presents an update on recent gender-related business research and it is quite evident that businesses which balance the genders simply do better. For example:

  • Catalyst research found a 34% higher total return to shareholders in companies with higher percentage of female executives.
  • McKinsey identified gender diversity in leadership led to higher return on equity, operating profit, and stock price.
  • MSCI Inc. looked at US companies over a four year period and found that those with three or more women on the board had higher median gains on equity and earning per share 45% higher than businesses with all male boards.
  • Gallup studied 800 business in 2014 and found that gender diverse business units had dramatically higher financial performance.
  • Credit Suisse Research Institute reported that companies with at least one woman on their board outperformed the peer group by 26% over the preceding six years.

So why would you not want women on the board, women partners, women leaders, women decision makers? It makes good business sense. In response, business is striving even harder to promote women. There are policies, women in business courses, coaching, mentoring, training – you name it the solutions are out there. My other business delivers them. The result? Very, very slow progress. Last year the Washington Post reported that women execs were at an all-time high – at 32%; In the FTSE 100 there are only 6 female CEO’s. In fact according to Fortune, the number of men called David outnumber the women; law firms and accountancies feel they are doing well when a meagre 15% of their partnership is female. So why, when we are equal in ability, drive, commercialism and energy, are women not equal in numbers?

Increasingly, I am coming to the conclusion that policies cannot overcome the critical three C’s – culture, care and confidence.

Culture - There can be little doubt that sexism lingers in business. Gone are the days of patting your secretary’s bottom and calling women ‘dear’. These days, most men are running scared of being non-PC (sometimes, I think to the point of paranoia and the death of normal male-female interaction. Banter has died under the flag of equality). However, it is naïve to think that a generation of middle-class, largely white, male executives can completely rid themselves of the culture in which they gained their business wings. Men who are today in their mid-fifties entered the workplace in the 1980s where the shoulder-pads and big hair of their female colleagues was about looking good not believing you were equally powerful. Yes, as young women, we were more likely than our mothers to talk about career. We are the first generation to expect one, to demand equal pay (and we still are demanding!), to have our own disposable income and go back to work after giving birth. But back then sexism was met with acceptance – at least acceptance that it was normal even if irritating. Today sexism is more subtle and, maybe, harder to call out. A study by Darden professor Erica James, cited by Herminia Imbarra and Morten T. Hansen in the Harvard Business Review, found that the announcement of a female CEO led to a drop in stock in a company. This doesn’t happen after announcing a male CEO. She also found that journalists reference gender more when writing about newly-appointed women. We all know that articles about women executives are more likely to reference their age and how many children they have. The issue remains that women have further to go before being an executive is normal and not something to be celebrated as it is so damn unusual.

Care - I have yet to read a diversity policy which over-rides the traditional set up in most families. Women give birth and, in most families, continue to be the primary child-carer. Her partner cannot breast-feed the child and that unique bond seems to flow through to the mother remaining the first port of call when the child is in need. Take this another step and it is Mum who sorts the school uniform, the play-dates, the birthday parties, the trips to see Granny and Grandpa. It is Mum who is called when little one cries in playschool or is sent to sick-bay. In those families who have the luxury of being able to afford a nanny, it is mum who organises the duties, the shopping, the laundry and the general rub of life. The result? The woman is running two critical jobs in parallel– her career and her children.  

Some families overcome this by having a house husband arrangement. It can work. Though it is rare and many of these men report being treated with suspicion at the school gate or being consistently monitored and managed by their wives who have difficulty letting go the reigns of motherhood. Worse, the three house-husbands I have met all chimed their frustration and even resentment at being managed and even felt emasculated.

Confidence - Even if you have the domestics sorted, do you have your brain geared up to success? Just a quick Google search will give you worrying data to show that women only apply for a job when they think they can do more that 80% of the requirements well. Men will take a punt when they think they can do 50% of the job. Women are less likely to request a pay-rise and are significantly more likely to suffer imposter syndrome. So, do we hover under that glass ceiling and really believe we do not have the muscle to punch through it? The answer for many is ‘yes.’

One thing is certainly true – if we keep talking about why we can’t break through the glass ceiling then we never will.  

So maybe we just need to get the gloves on, believe in ourselves, face our fears and punch through. Maybe we need to follow men and believe career-equality is just our right. And, if we do, then we may lead our daughters into a world in which ‘the glass ceiling’ has the same reaction as when we start a sentence with ‘Well, when I was your age…’


Until next time.... Stay Sassy

Dr G.

"The Online Magazine for strong women"



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