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[fusion_text]As a species, it seems we often like to simplify challenges – not just as this is the era of the soundbite when complex issues must be reduced to ‘elevator pitches’ to get others to engage, but perhaps because a simple challenge feels easier to dismiss. But it depends what we mean by ‘dismiss’, doesn’t it: do we mean despatch (deal with, send away, render obsolete), or do we mean ‘park in the long grass’ (ie out of sight = out of mind). When it comes to the issue of women in leadership, and women’s progression in the workplace generally, are we doing the same thing by referring to the glass ceiling? It makes it sounds as if there’s just a single obstacle, and if we can only find the right hammer and land a powerful blow in the right area of the glass…

Inequality is still very much alive: progress has undeniably been made, but in 2013 26.8% of FTSE 250 companies still have all-male boards, and only 5.8% of FTSE 100 companies have a female executive director. And if we look at opportunities for progression rather than achievements secured, it’s instructive to read Cranfield University’s Female FTSE Board Report 2013:

We return to a focus this year on the FTSE 100 executive committees. Our figures show a drop in the percentage of women on executive committees from 18.1% to 15.3% since 2009. It is therefore not surprising that headway is not being made in the numbers of women holding Executive Directorships.

[…] Despite women dominating Human Resources, Law and Marketing in general, this is not reflected at Executive Director level. Further, in terms of paths to executive roles, whilst 48% female Executive Directors were internally promoted the equivalent percentage for men was 62%. This bias forces women to seek promotion in other companies.”

Alice Eagly explains a different view in an article at BigThink, arguing that the ‘ceiling’ metaphor is misleading: it’s not a matter so much of an insurmountable single barrier as a process of attrition that starts at an earlier stage:

[…] the challenges that women face in having successful careers are not just at the top.  They are all the way along the career from step one through step two, step three, all the way through the career.  So the reason you have so few women at the top of some hierarchies—such as being a chief executive officer in the Fortune 500—is that there are few women at that level right before that, so women progressively drop out of the hierarchy.  It isn’t that the women are there in great numbers and then can’t get to that upper level.  It’s a progressive drop out that occurs for many different reasons, so it is a rather odd metaphor actually in terms of not capturing the phenomenon.”

Partly this is an issue of progression being designed as a ‘track’ – a pipeline that moves at a single speed. As Eagly explains, the practical concerns of family and child-rearing are a major factor:

It’s hard after dropping out to get back to a successful career.  It shouldn’t be.  The on-ramp should be there, but often it’s not. And then the part-time work it should be good quality work [sic], but that could result in promotion, but in fact, that is not the case.  Ordinarily it’s dumbed-down work compared to what you would have if you work a full-time career, and ordinarily there are limited, if any, promotion possibilities.  So you’re on that sidetrack.  Well maybe you can get back on again, but your male colleagues who didn’t do that are way ahead and there is this whole cohort of young eager men and women coming along too.”

A 2012 Ernst & Young survey of 1000 working women aged between 18-60 came to similar conclusions: there is a no single barrier, but rather a number of barriers than can occur at different points in a woman’s career. Interestingly, only 19% said motherhood had already impacted on their career so far – a lower figure than those citing ‘age’ as a barrier, although these positions are reversed when women were asked how different factors might impact on them in the future.

Yet one of Ernst & Young’s four barriers – the other is experience/qualifications – drew what was perhaps the headline figure. While only 8% saw it as having been detrimental to their career, a huge 75% said that they “have few or no female role models within their organisations”.

In their press release announcing the poll findings, EY saw the answers lying in organisational responses, possible government interventions (in the form of tax breaks on child care, policy guidelines on flexible working and enforcing transparency on pay gaps) and – interestingly – ‘personal responsibility’, which they leave tantalisingly undefined. In terms of possible constructive actions by organisations, the poll respondents cited three most prominently. The first two are essentially tackling pragmatic concerns, but the third takes us back a paragraph or two:

  • More support after returning to work from having children (32%)
  • More support at every stage of my career lifecycle (24%)
  • More visible female role models (19%)

Is it too critical, or too nuanced, to suggest that it’s not just the visibility of female role models that is an issue here? Visibility – and more fundamentally, existence – is certainly important: the vast literature of leadership development and behavioural change provide endless examples of the power of modelling what you wish to create, rather than merely calling for or espousing it. Without role models, the idea that something is possible is far harder to grasp or conceive.

But isn’t there an important twist? Role models not only have to exist, they have to be believable: if they are to be an inspiration, we have to feel that we could one day follow their example and match their achievements. How instructive – or inspirational – is it for the mythical ‘Everywoman’ to look at an example such as Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In book and website/community/movement? Certainly she has rebooted an issue and dragged an issue up the agenda, but can she drag other women up the corporate ladder in her wake? At the portside.org website, Linda Burnham sees Sandberg as focused rather more on life above the ceiling than below it and ‘on the floor’, commenting that:

[…] while offering to jump-start and lead a feminist revolution, she has essentially produced a manifesto for corporatist feminism, career advice for the distaff side of the 1%. That advice is, in fact, about how to have it all, while offering precisely zero guidance on how to dismantle the structural barriers to gender equity that still impede most women.”

Writing for The Baffler, Susan Faludi was equally sceptical, if less pithy. The Baffler has an agenda as much as Sandberg, of course, but its concern for those currently lower down the ladder isn’t simply ‘politically motivated’, and it does a disservice to organisations – as well as to women (and to politics, come to that) – to fall pray to that simplifying urge. To ‘lean in’ at a meeting in a room on the mythical fifth floor, one must first be present at the meeting: leaning in to your workstation in the open-plan ops office in the basement doesn’t have the same impact.

In concluding the EY Press Release, head of advisory Harry Gaskell commented

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.”

Perhaps, indeed. And perhaps the role models can also use their influence to drive those ‘positive interventions’ – and their ears to listen to the women still below ‘the ceiling’ (and below themselves), to make sure that their own success is repeatable for them. Women may wish to be equal, but they might not all wish to be the same as each other: women are diverse too.

To find out more about our Coaching for Women in Leadership offering, built on specific strategies that can be used to help women to develop their potential in a holistic, demonstrably effective way, [modal_text_link name=”womentolead” class=”” id=””]download our free guide[/modal_text_link].

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