What are the barriers to progression into senior management? Do women have the desire to break through the glass ceiling?
Our Social Affairs Correspondent reviews an in depth study by Nikki Helm and in doing so comes to some interesting conclusions.
Nikki Helm informs us that she is an ambitious, full-time working mother, in a senior position, in her 40’s and that she has reached a crossroads in her life. This is a state of affairs that many of us who have reached 40 and beyond will recognise, but I suspect that most of us carry on regardless in the hope that we can head off our mid-life crisis.
For Nikki the question is whether to pursue her career and confesses that she is not sure whether she has the desire to push through barriers to promotion to board level. Rather than bury her head in the sand and carry on, she has met the challenge full on by exploring the question of whether the ‘glass ceiling’ exists.
The ‘glass ceiling’ as many women would contend, is a barrier which prevents women moving up into executive management positions in male-dominated companies. Much has been written about it, in the past few decades, and while many theories have been posited and solutions proposed, there continues to be a paucity of women in executive and senior management positions in both the private and public sector.
Nikki’s research paper contains a literature review, an examination of the theories surrounding the ‘glass ceiling’ and this comprises a significant part of the document. It makes for interesting reading and reminds us, in a few stark statistics, the scale of the continuing inequality in the numbers of women in positions of power and responsibility. She cites some examples from the Equal Opportunities Commission website (March 2005) which states that while women comprise 46% of the labour market only:
only 18% of MPs are women only 10% of senior managers are women only 3.6% of company directors are women
Women do not face one, but several barriers, according to the research on which Nikki’s work is based. Furthermore, this is complicated by some of the initiatives designed to help, e.g. flexible working hours. Women who take advantage of this option are often perceived, according to the research cited, to be less committed. Yet, from my own experience I know of women who job-share, who all tell the same story, of how they consistently work harder within their contracted hours, so that there are no complaints from their manager about their working arrangements.
The research used by Nikki is work which has been carried out in the first decade of this century. As a 50 something (only just!) I can still remember the legislation in the 70’s that made it illegal for women to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex. Within the work situation, it was no longer acceptable for women to be asked about their marital status or about their child-care arrangements. I remember that it became illegal for women to be barred from male only organisations. It felt like a good time to be a young woman. Yet very early on, I realised that it would not be an easy journey to overturn the habits of centuries and those men, who did not want the changes, would continue to find ways to circumvent the law. I was a student in Glasgow in the late 70’s and I remember going to some of the pubs which had been male denizens and having to cope with the resentful looks of the regulars. However, I soon discovered that there was a way around it. Some landlords had discovered that if they dragged their feet on installing female toilets they could continue to bar women from their drinking dens. I was refused entry to a few. They finally all succumbed though but not with good grace. Thank goodness they did comply with the law eventually as I had only been going to these establishments to make a point, not for pleasure!
In the 80’s I was in a management position in a theatre in Glasgow. Often, I would be the duty manager during a performance and when problems arose staff would send for me to deal with them. Several times when I arrived on the scene, the individual at the centre of the problem told me that they would not deal with me, that they would only talk to a male manager. I tried not to be too smug when I told him that I was the only manager on the premises. So, things were not going to change quickly, and as a social sciences graduate, I knew that social changes took time to embed themselves in society! Still, it was hard not to become a bit dispirited.
In the 90’s, my younger sister became interested in golf and found that she was really rather good at it. However she was put off, not by anything that happened on the golf course, but rather by the fact that she played with male friends, but once in the clubhouse, she could not have a drink with them at the bar. I don’t play golf myself but I suspect that this discrimination is no longer tolerated.
We are still dealing with inequality in this new century; we are still trying to understand why women cannot take their place, next to the men, at the boardroom table. We are still doing the bulk of the childcare and dealing with family responsibilities when we go home. We have come so far and yet we cannot seem to compete with men in the workplace, without, often, huge personal cost. I know from my own experience that women in senior positions have often chosen work over personal relationships and having a family. The only woman I know who has risen to an executive position, had a family and is still married is only there, largely, because her husband took over the home and family responsibilities. Even she finds it hard to achieve a work/home balance. However, to be fair, we know that this is not only a gender issue, but a societal one, which has to be addressed.
The second half of Nikki’s document is based on research that Nikki conducted within the organisation in which she works. The company is one of the top 150 FTSE companies, within the construction industry sector. She used the theories which she had considered in the literature review as a basis for the study she undertook.
Nikki’s research is based on interviews with both female and male members of the organisation and throws up some interesting points. One of the earliest points is that in a construction-based business, the need for industry knowledge was more important to women. The women felt that to be in a leadership role the knowledge had to be there at the outset while the men would pick it up as they went. I hadn’t thought about it but of course they would feel like that in a male-dominated industry; would they have been taken seriously otherwise?
As part of the research Nikki reported that men in the organisation now appear, even in a very male dominated industry, to be accepting that decision-making could be a collaborative exercise. Indeed the senior-management programme within the organisation encourages a more participative approach to management. This is good news, I thought. I have had to take profiles as part of job interviews myself in the past and always felt slightly inferior when I was informed that I leaned more towards the intuitive in my decision-making style. Somehow it was implied that this made me a second-class decision-maker.
Then I read on. Apparently the progressive way of thinking promoted at HQ has not yet trickled down to the network of branches. Here many of the female staff emulate the men in their dress and hairstyles. It seems that we still have to be ‘one of the lads’ to be taken seriously in some situations, at least.
It was depressing to read that women in more senior positions are still struggling to find a satisfactory work/life balance and lower graded staff, while achieving a balance, still feel the need to be in the office ‘after hours’. And women’s commitment to work is still being questioned.
However, as stated before, we know that it is not only women who struggle to get a balance. All of the men interviewed said that they had not got the balance right and it brought them into conflict with their families. Yet all had wives at home who cared for the family!
Few of the women interviewed were aware of the organisation’s family friendly policy and even when they were, they were not motivated to make use of it, on the basis that any change to their working arrangements would reduce their chances of advancement. One senior female manager had asked for flexible working and it had been denied. Plus ca change!
Again I took some heart from Nikki’s positive comments about the lack of an ‘old boys’ network within the organisation; this was quickly overtaken by the assertion that there is a ‘definite informal practice of promotions’. Added to that, the male managers are appointing to senior positions in their image, which clearly is a wider issue than just gender. This means that the middle-class, middle-aged, white, male manager will continue to appoint with like and the organisation will fail to diversify its work-force.
We see a lot of the old stereotypes played out in Nikki’s research. You are only as good as the hours you put in, unsatisfactory work/life balance, women having to prove themselves better than the men, guilt at not being enough at work or home, etc,.
It is easy to recognise that women have to play out their working lives against a set of rules which are made by men and therefore are often at a disadvantage. The culture appears to be completely male-dominated to the advantage of the men in the organisation. Additionally, there are no women at an executive level and therefore no-one who can coach and support more junior female staff. Nikki states baldly, ‘the organisational culture denotes that it would be impossible for any women to be recognised as serious about the advancement to the executive level’.
As a result of her in-depth research Nikki makes some recommendations for her organisation which would no doubt help to change some of the practices at her workplace. However I would contend that what really needs to happen within this organisation, and many others like it, is for a complete change of culture. For this to happen there needs to be directive from the top in order to drive the change forward. This is a strategic issue which needs to be addressed to ensure diversity across the organisation. In this way, we can as a society, begin to draw on the very best human resources available to us, to make us a workforce to be reckoned with.
Oh, and I think that Nikki is about to hit the ‘glass ceiling’ in her organisation. Hope she breaks through it!