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THE GLASS CEILING: MYTH OR REALITY ?

A RT IC L E P R I N T E D 2 0 1 0 BY PAULA KING

T H E G L A S S C E I L I N G – A P H R A SE C O I N E D I N 1 9 8 4 T O M E A N A N I N V I SI B L E BA R R I E R T O WOM E N B E I N G P R OM O T E D B EYO N D M I D D L E M A NAG E M E N T The Glass Ceiling: Myth or Reality? The phrase the glass ceiling was originally coined 27 years ago so surely it would not be unreasonable to expect that, with the advent of a new century, things have changed radically for women in the workplace. What is the reality in 2011 for the woman in the workplace?. Women now represent 30 per cent of managers in the largest companies in Europe, according to European Union data. An indication of the potentially seismic shift taking place in the management population is that female heads of department in the UK earned more on average than their male counterparts for the first time this year. Therefore we need to question why women are very much the exception to the male rule at the highest level – in boardrooms and on executive management committees. Only 2 per cent of chief executives and presidents, or chairmen of Europe’s largest companies are female, according to European Commission statistics. In an article in the Financial Times (1/10/08) it was noted that where change is happening in Europe, external pressure plays an

important part. In Norway, the threat of government quotas for women on boards, combined with a very public annual census on diversity, has helped to concentrate minds. In the UK, government, business schools and leading companies have joined forces to address the shortage of women on boards. At an event to mark International Women’s Day in 2010 the International Labour Office (ILO) reported that women still face higher unemployment rates and lower wages than men. The rate of success women have in breaking the glass ceiling remains slow, uneven and sometimes discouraging. Women continue to have more difficulty obtaining top jobs First Edition

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than they do lower down the hierarchy. The CIPD have published a report ‘Women in the Boardroom: A Bird’s eye view’ in order to explore this confusing arena which can present conflicting evidence from academia, CEOs and FTSE companies and statistics. The research consisted of a series of case studies involving high-potential women, from different backgrounds and family situations, reviewing their career development and the choices they have made, particularly focusing on the rewards they perceive they have gained from their decisions. It is interesting to note that many of the women interviewed said that the environment culture at the top of the corporate organisation they worked for did not attract them. The findings suggest that many women find that to be successful they have to ‘play the game’ in a male-dominated environment. For some this is simply too much a compromise of their essential self. To add confusion to an already confusing topic the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter published research which indicates

that the biggest threat to Women in senior management positions is not the ‘glass ceiling’ but is now the ‘glass cliff ’ – women being promoted into risky, difficult jobs where the chances of failure are higher. Women are “smashing through the glass ceiling” of the UK’s top businesses, according to a report in the Times - Numbers of female directors on the boards of FTSE 100 companies had risen by 20% in the previous 12 months, it said. But the article posed a thorny question: “Women on board: A help or a hindrance?” and went on to conclude in no uncertain terms, that women are a hindrance. Shares in companies with more women directors tended to under perform relative to the FTSE average, the paper said. And companies without women on their boards tended to outperform the average. One commentator concluded that “the triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has wreaked havoc on companies’ performance and share prices”. However the research carried out the University of Exeter indicates that

such pessimism may be premature and unfounded and that rather than women leaders causing poor performance, poor company performance may lead to the appointment of women to positions of leadership. It therefore appears that after having broken through a glass ceiling women are actually more likely than men to find themselves on a “glass cliff ”, meaning their positions of leadership are risky or precarious. The CIPD will continue to work with the University in order to investigate the glass cliff phenomenon with more in-depth and systematic experimental research into the processes involved and the long term implications of placing women in precarious leadership positions. As in the US, companies in the UK and Ireland are becoming increasingly aware of women’s importance – in the labour force and as customers. The business case for a diverse board and senior management has been made: diversity issues; reflecting the range of customers that use the business; or simply identifying a bigger pool of talent to fill important vacancies. Many reasons are advanced for wom-

M A N ’ S WOR L D : M E N HAV E A B E T T E R C HA N C E O F D RUM B E ATI N G T H E I R AC H I EV E M E N T S W I T H I N T H E I R O F F IC E S , SE E K G L O BA L E X P E R I E N C E A N D C HA N G E J O B S W H E N T H EY T H I N K I T H E L P S A DVA N C E T H E I R C A R E E R BY PAULA KING G L A S S C E I L I N G BY PAULA KING

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en’s disinclination to enter corporate life in the first place, or inclination to leave it; they prefer careers that serve a clear public or social goal; they want more flexibility than corporate hierarchies allow; they dislike power networks and role models. One obstacle for those choosing a corporate career is the pressure for high-flyers to take rapid promotion in their 20s and 30s which can be a very difficult time for women when they have family commitments.

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Another barrier is that women often do not get the hands-on experience they need to reach the top, according to research by Catalyst, the New York based organisation that works for female advancement. Although this is changing, women still tend to be concentrated in lower-profile staff jobs rather than general management. What of the few women who do end up heading large businesses in Europe? As well as having operational experience, ability and tenacity, they have to be thick-skinned. As their rarity value makes them the focus of intense media scrutiny. Sari Baldauf, President of Nokia Networks who was ranked the top woman business leader in Europe by the Financial Times is a woman with her feet firmly in the ‘real’ world. When interviewed after being presented by this prestigious award she said “You need to make sure that you also take time to do things that are important for you and maintain your inner identity. “ “I am Sari and then I work at Nokia. I have this role and I have responsibilities and tasks that relate to that. But as a human being, I don’t identify myself with that role. As a human being I identify myself as Sari”

The research indicates that the ‘glass ceiling’ is still a reality for women but the same research indicates that there has been a shift for women themselves. In many cases their value system prevents them from buying into an organisational culture which values only the skills they bring to an organisation with no recognition of who they are. Many organisations are offering women coaching as a means to assist them to feel more empowered and valued. For a woman who is employed in a position where her peers are men and her working environment is dominated by a male culture coaching can provide a valuable ‘safety valve’.

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The Glass Ceiling  

ARTICLE PRINTED 2010 BY PAULA KING important part. In Norway, the threat of government quotas for women on boards, combined with a very publ...

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