Making The ‘Glass Ceiling’ Your Floor

Posted on Saturday, May 2, 2020 by Roland Azor, MD & Owner of Innovations At WorkNo comments

Have you ever thought how interesting it is, whenever you mention the term ‘glass ceiling’, that everyone instantly knows what you mean? How does that happen? Equally importantly, why is it still in place?

This article will seek to: Firstly, to explore why it is still operating in the UK workplace in 2018, and who benefits by keeping it in place?

Secondly, it will seek to offer some real tangible tips and strategies to rid your workplace, once and for all, of this phenomena before it slips quietly into another decade of our working life.

So let’s start with clarifying what is meant by the ‘glass ceiling’?.

The Oxford Dictionary describes it as ‘an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities’. What I find interesting are the words ‘unacknowledged barrier’. It begs the question: unacknowledged by who and why? One idea could be concerned with how power works (Azor 2018). My experience at work, has led me to believe that the more powerful you are, the less you have to be mentioned! So ‘unacknowledged’ could be by groups with power, whilst groups with less power definitely recognise its existence.  

Maybe that’s why we regularly hear of the group term Black & Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) mentioned at work, yet very rarely hear the opposite describing  the ‘white British Majority Ethnics (WBME). Could the reason be that the more powerful the group is, the less they need to be mentioned?   

We know from architecture that there are actual ceilings made of glass, but how did the term enter the business world? A Google search suggests that Nora Frenkiel, editor of Magazine World, referred to this phrase in the mid-1980s, and a decade before, Marilyn Loden, an American Management Consultant made mention of this in her work. 

They both pointed to ‘women getting stuck’ in middle management, and that there did not appear to be ‘enough room’ for women at the more senior levels. This invisible yet unbreachable barrier meant that certain groups could not rise to the top of hierarchy. 

From Frenkiel and Loden’s observations in the late 1970s it appears nothing much has changed over nearly 50 years. In my work as a consultant and trainer, the most common recognisable barriers are where workers in frontline roles or middle managers talk about being ‘trapped’ or ‘waiting to fill dead man’s shoes’, to gain promotion. What you do notice is that this pattern exists across all sectors. 

The other change might be, that originally the groups mentioned by Frenkiel and Loden were white women at work and BAME groups which were mentioned separately. Now, with more joined up thinking brought about by the introduction of the Equality Act 2010, the notion of ‘intersectionality’ has encouraged us to see our gender, as being different but of equal value to other aspects of our identity known as ‘protected characteristics’. So the question that I now ask is: which group of women has experienced a greater disproportionality as a result of glass ceilings than any other group?  

So let’s move to why ‘glass ceilings’ are still operating across sectors in 2018 and consider, what is behind the agenda in keeping them in place. Historically, there appears to be three main reasons that recur regularly to argue why they exist: 

  1. The greater cohort of female graduates with 1st class degrees have not yet had time to work through the pipeline to reach the top.  
  1. Women are distracted from their career path by the need to stay at home and raise children.  
  1. An age old view, still held up by Rosa Moss Kanter suggested, that where so few women role models are in existence, that women’s mistakes at a senior level are far more visible and this exaggerates the differences between men  and women at Executive level. 

When you look at these points, each individually can be refuted by statistical evidence, patterns, facts and good old common sense! But it doesn’t answer what is behind the agenda to keep ‘glass ceilings’ in place. 

So let’s start: One response is to acknowledge the growing impact of the all persuasive ‘dominant male culture’ at work in the UK. Evidence for this was recently collated in the ‘Colour of Power Report’, which reported that 97% of our leaders were white males across all three sectors. Evidence is also on our book shelves, with author after author describing how male dominance is perpetuated and described as ‘unconscious bias’. Another, slightly more controversial response is to ask: who benefits if women (across the characteristics) continue to have ‘glass ceilings’ to limit their aspirations and career development? 

Baroness MacGregor-Smith’s recent review found that the UK economy could receive a national boost of some £24 billion if our recruiters and leaders could unlock the minority talent in the UK. The real question that this raises is: what would the national boost to the UK economy be if we were to unlock the ‘majority workforce of women’ in the UK? An important related point is, can we afford not to act, and not to break those glass ceilings?  

So what can you practically do to ensure this phenomena does not continue in our working lives? Here are three things: 

  1. Start by reviewing your own organisation or business’s salary structure. Employers in Great Britain with more than 250 staff are required by law to publish the following four types of figures annually on their own website and on a government website: 
  • Gender pay gap (mean and median averages) 
  • Gender bonus gap (mean and median averages) 
  • Proportion of men and women receiving bonuses 
  • Proportion of men and women in each quartile of the organisation’s pay structure 
  1. Gather all the data that describes which roles men and women occupy at work. Ask for it to be built into the business plan to track a percentage of  women and men graduates and their progression at work. Ask for these   findings to be reported at the highest levels under the General Duty: Promoting Good Relations At Work. If you are subject to Inspections, ensure this information finds itself into the report on the legal responsibilities your organisation has under the Equality Act 2010. Remember, if you work in the private sector this also applies to those public services your company may have won contracts to deliver. Essentially, you are arguing the case for transparency and fairness which is exactly what your clients ask of you, and  this in turn, is no more than your staff deserve. 
  1. The law in the UK makes provision for positive action e.g the ‘Rooney Rule’. This is different to positive discrimination (which is illegal). Positive action does not mean introducing quotas (targets yes, but not quotas), nor does it mean giving preference to minority groups when recruiting candidates. Be prepared for the cry that it ‘has all gone too far’, or ‘it’s too risky’, but evidence tells us  that while there has been some movement on the dial we haven’t gone far enough! 

4. Be prepared to go the extra mile and develop your ‘own courageous leadership role’. BAME woman and women with disabilities shouldn’t have to experience glass ceilings and then also struggle to pull them down. They need our support. This means men ‘standing up  for women’ and ‘being counted’, to break down the rules governing the ‘dominant male culture’. Think of our mothers, sisters and daughters and remind yourself that fairness and equity applies to them too. 

  1. Never think you are alone. Start or join a Gender network. Sometimes our voices are heard more when we collectively join together. Promote your role as a ‘critical friend’ of your employer to support policies, procedures and  standards that promote equity and fairness at work. 

To make the glass ceiling the floor for all women (especially BAME women and women with disabilities) we must keep pressing for progress and shatter the glass barrier once and for all. As Baroness MacGregor-Smith says “The time for talking is over. Now is the time to act”. 

Written by Roland Azor, MD & Owner of Innovations At Work

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