Deconstructing the glass ceiling: women’s paths to leadership

Women often outperform men in both education and the workplace. Yet when it comes to making it to top leadership positions, a significant gap remains between men's and women’s access. There is evidence the ‘glass ceiling’ still exists, writes Marianne Curphey.

Image of women sitting at a desk smiling
Research by Dr Patrizia Kokot-Blamey shows the price of making it to the very top for women. It is often to work like a normative father might; either accepting a household gender-role reversal or outsourcing much of the early-years childcare. She argues this will be too high a price to pay for many women and increasingly also for men.“If we want more women in top leadership positions, then we need to make it less costly for women to get there,” she says. “The cost here is not so much financial, but the regret of leaving very young children, and missing much of their early years, to work.“The current performance management systems in the UK are designed to reward a worker who has no other responsibilities,” she says. “They do not account for the fact that most of us do have some responsibilities, be it family or care of elderly relatives, and women are more likely to seek to accommodate these.”
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Addressing gendered hierarchies

Dr Patrizia Kokot-Blamey is the author of ‘Gendered Hierarchies of Dependency’, a book which looks at women’s career advancement in professional service firms. She is a senior lecturer in organisation studies at Queen Mary, University of London. She also holds a PhD in gender studies from the London School of Economics, and undergraduate and master’s degrees in economics from Maastricht University. She writes on women and the professions, fertility and employment, and has published in top journals such as ‘Accounting, Organizations and Society’ (FT Top 50), and ‘Gender, Work and Organizations’. In her research, she calls on organisations to acknowledge the human life cycle and provide job security during these often-tense transition periods. For example, during pregnancy and the early years of children’s lives, as well as when it comes to the challenges related to looking after elderly parents, ill partners and periods of one’s ill health.“Performance management systems need to be unbiased, but they also need to allow some grace for transition periods such as these,” she says. “Line managers are often poorly trained when it comes to applying flexible working policies and managing both women and men who are facing stressful periods in their lives.”The impact of inaction is the continued underemployment of women’s talents, which feeds into gender pay and leadership gaps. “Women today are on average better educated than men and often outperform them at work. Yet many women feel compelled to downshift careers and move into jobs that are below their capacity to secure the hours they feel they need to manage already stressful times in their lives. That is very difficult to reverse in its effects.”Her book suggests some policies employers can adopt to level the playing field for women, including:
  1. A transparent appraisal process and an appreciation that while performance management assessments are important, they should not be used rigidly, especially during already stressful transition periods that affect men as well as women in different ways. For example, ill health can affect men as well as women, but pregnancy, maternity, or fertility treatment are gendered and can also be unpredictable.
  2. Perceived job security is important for mental and physical wellbeing. This is something employers can affect in their day-to-day operations with employees
  3. Workplace flexibility is important to allow those who would otherwise leave or downshift their careers to keep their foot in the door. Such flexibility would benefit all parents. It would also stop highly trained women from leaving employment or taking lower-paid jobs to secure the hours they feel they need to manage periods of transition, for example in the early years of their children’s lives.

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Hurdles and opportunities

Dr Kokot-Blamey argues these assessments should have an element of “common sense” built in that allows employees to shift down a gear at work during times of transition and stress. She also explains in her book how career management for women is context dependent.“In the UK, women’s paths to the top of an organisation are more straightforward than in Germany, where more relationships and close networks are comparatively more important,” she says. “As a result, we can see more women advance to higher positions.“However, employees in the UK also face more job insecurity because there is less of a safety net and because performance management procedures take a short-term view while careers are long games with many of us working 40 to 45 years.”In Germany, long-term personal relationships still matter comparatively more in business, while in the UK and US, understanding the career structures in place is more important. Dr Kokot-Blamey says women in the UK often successfully navigate around blockages in career progression by using recruitment agencies to find a better job or secure a promotion.Yet women in the UK face job insecurity, despite being highly educated and qualified. Dr Kokot-Blamey argues that employers must offer job security to high-performing women to accommodate transition periods.“In the UK, we can see that women do very well up to middle management, and it is at the very top that the proportion of women tends to drop off. Women are more likely than men to look for more flexible working arrangements to accommodate childcare responsibilities.”It can be difficult for women to return to employment that matches their experiences and skills after taking time off for caregiving responsibilities, leading to a loss of highly qualified employees for organisations, she says.Instead, organisations should build in ways for women to step up and balance caregiving responsibilities with work, providing opportunities for recognition and advancement. This might involve giving women more grace during fertility treatment, pregnancy and maternity leave. Performance management systems should be more flexible during these periods, rather than adding to the stress and potentially causing the loss of valuable employees.“Women are downsizing or downshifting into jobs that are below their capacity due to conscientiousness and a desire to avoid being underperforming or stressed,” she explains. “Were employers to redefine flexibility to help women, this would enable them to keep experienced and highly skilled women whom they often lose at the peak times in their career.”

Maximising international assignments

Her research has identified key differences in the way women progress within organisations in Germany and the UK. Both systems have their pros and cons, and neither offers a perfect solution to the challenges that women face in their careers. For example, women in the UK often feel they have limited career choices due to the high cost of living, leading to delegation of childcare responsibilities or outsourcing entirely. In Germany, jobs are based on close personal or family ties and women often do not have access to these networks in the way that men do.Dr Kokot-Blamey believes that for women looking for long-term, international opportunities to boost their careers, choosing a country with a more liberal market economy will enable them to advance more quickly.“I would say from my research that opportunities are more abundant in countries such as the United States and Australia. Women will find it easier to advance. If you are coming from the UK, you will already understand the structure and the systems in place. In Germany, for example, long-term relationships of trust matter comparatively more and that’s not easily acquired.”She notes that how relationships are developed and used can depend on context and this too may influence women’s careers.“There is a well-known study by Burt and colleagues from 2000 that looks at French and American managers. They could show for example that they were using networks very differently. The French managers were relying on long-term personal relationships that often came from family ties. Then they would add acquaintances from work on top of this.“American managers were more likely embedded in networks that spanned their careers, mostly work-related, and were more likely to develop friendships within their workplace networks, which is a very different way. In my research, I found that this was also the case.“In the UK, often women aiming for partnership only had fleeting workplace relationships and mentors who were assigned to them professionally. Whereas in Germany, the women often relied on friendships that had gone back a long time. They would join firms that were run by friends of their families, so long-term established relationships were already in place.”

Sponsoring career progression

Dr Kokot-Blamey says job security is hugely important to wellbeing, mental and physical health, and productivity at work. “This is something employers can think about in their organisations, but it is also a policy issue because of higher levels of job insecurity and a lower safety net in the UK,” she explains.“Even women who are highly educated and skilled feel insecure in their jobs. As they take on more visible and senior roles, they continue to feel vulnerable. In the UK, as in many liberal market economies, there's a real disconnect between education, training and experience on the one hand and job security on the other. Women who are hugely qualified have a lot of experience and a wide network of professional contacts are conscious of redundancy happening around them, with even those in top positions affected. That shouldn't be the case.”In some ways, the focus on performance management systems and appraisal systems, which were designed to enhance equality, diversity and inclusion, can actually work against women, she says. For example, high-performing women might need extra support when they need to shift gears in their careers to accommodate maternity leave and possibly part-time parental work. “Pregnancy and maternity are not gender-neutral events,” she says. “Line managers often do not know how to work these into an appraisal system in a fair way.“It is important for employers to offer the job security women who are high performers need to temporarily take a slower track if that is what they wish to do,” she says. “The vast majority of us will become parents at some point in our lives and this issue therefore affects the majority of people, particularly women, but also men who are more likely today to take a step back when children arrive than previous generations.”She says women often downshift in career terms to accommodate the demands of motherhood, but then find the move difficult to reverse.“It is a shame when we are facing a skills shortage. The human life cycle is relatively predictable, but our workplace assessments do not have this built in. Birth can take a long time to recover from depending on what happens, and a lot of women are really surprised to find that very young children do not actually easily adapt to childcare settings. What employers can do to help women is not to make this process even more stressful.“In the UK, we have really embraced performance management systems. There is little scope for common sense here within the systems. Someone who has a track record of consistently performing at a high level is very likely to continue to do so.“But forcing someone to meet the criteria of a rigid performance management system during a time that is already extremely stressful often only results in losing them. Women downsize and downshift into jobs that are below their capacity because they are conscientious, and they don't want to be underperforming.”She also says that while workplace flexibility is important, its definition differs from country to country.“Flexible working in the UK often means juggling your hours around school hours and school holidays. It's a bit different in Germany, where part-time work, for example, usually means working half days. This is often not practical in the UK for several reasons, but in both contexts, highly educated, highly skilled women should be able to command some flexibility in their workplace.”The good news is that progressive firms are recognising the importance of nurturing and supporting their high-performing women.“In the UK, especially in the larger firms, among the women I interviewed there were women who worked part-time and made it to the role of partner. They were keen to stress that doing that role on a part-time basis was important for them and also to be a role model and example to younger women. They want to show that it can be done, and that motherhood does not mean an exit from senior roles or career progression.”

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