Is the glass ceiling ultimately shatterproof?

Thursday February 2, 2017

No! Not if women give it a bit more elbow grease, says Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook and co-author of Lean In. The book argues that aside from societal structures holding women back from progression in the workplace, women hold themselves back. This is down to a whole raft of factors: social expectation, a lack of domestic assertiveness and a fear of their own power. The debate rumbles on, but the fact remains that for a myriad of reasons women remain significantly under-represented at the top of most professions.

Last year we marked the Centenary of World War One which saw women enter the workforce in great numbers for the first time. Now, 100 years later so much has changed for women at work. And ahead of International Women’s Day 2015 on March 8th it’s right to celebrate how far women have come, and examine how far there is left to go to achieve full equality in the workplace.

Over the last few years we have seen a lot of ‘firsts’ for women at work. At the start of this year the first female Bishop was consecrated after a long internal battle in the Church.

Last year, Amélie Mauresmo became the first woman to coach a top male tennis player in Andy Murray. The surrounding debate was furious, as was his defense of his decision. Hats off to you Andy.

In 2013, Lloyds of London appointed its first ever female CEO in its 325 year history and Frances O’Grady became the first female General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.

This is, of course, all fantastic. But it’s 2015 and these ‘firsts’ are still headline making because they are worth remarking on, because they are not the norm.

It is worth noting at this point that the only FTSE 100 female CEOs are Moya Greene at Royal Mail, Carolyn McCall at easyJet, Angela Ahrendts at Burberry and Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco. And two companies in the FTSE 100 still have all-male boards perfectly highlighting the under-representation of women at top levels.

Other than World War One there were other major moments that advanced women’s employment: access to The Pill, the Equal Pay Act and Maternity Rights to name but a few. Continuing ‘family friendly’ employment legislation and support with childcare have extended these opportunities. Most recently the introduction of Shared Parental Leave, and campaigns/projects like The Job Share Project. But we have a long way to go, not least in terms of attitudes.

One of the most frustrating questions to ask a career woman is “How do you do it all?”. This question is so loaded with assumption: a woman who is achieving in business must not have time to spend with family or be a good mother. When was the last time a man in business was asked this question?

Bossy, bitchy, hysterical, emotional, feisty, ‘wife of’ and hormonal are all terms regularly used to describe ambitious successful business women. Let’s be honest, men would not be described using these words or their equivalents.  Sheryl Sandberg put it wonderfully when she said, “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills.”

So what can SMEs do to ensure equality of opportunity and an environment in which women can succeed?

  • Have a strategy to increase the representation of women in the workplace.
  • Ensure open and transparent recruitment policies.
  • Make sure your family friendly policies are up to date, communicated and promoted
  • Consider how you will accommodate flexible working requests.
  • Ensure equality of access to learning and development opportunities.
  • If you have a Board look at its composition.

If your business wants help enacting any of these steps, then just get in touch with The HR Dept. When a woman reaches the top of an organisation and it is no longer newsworthy or a ‘first’, that is when the glass ceiling will have truly begun to splinter. Happy International Women’s Day to all!

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