Forget the Glass Ceiling, Fix the Ladder

Looks about right. Photo Credit: Blogging about Business Women

I’ve struggled for a few years with the glass ceiling. We love to talk about the importance of women shattering the glass ceiling but here’s the thing, the ceiling is at the top, and first you have to want to get there. Not every woman wants to run for President of the United States or become the next CEO of a Fortune 500, run for Congress or even run a department – and that’s what I think of when we talk about shattering the glass ceiling. But most women want – and need – to keep working. (Fun Fact of the day: Did you know the U.S. Department of Labor created a Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991? It sadly went out of commission in 1996.)

It seems to me the crux of the issue is retaining talent and keeping women working so that there will be more of us to pick from to reach the glass ceiling, if and when the time comes. So isn’t it about the steps up the ladder to the ceiling that need more examination? I think so.

I’ve posted a few times in the past week on my Wired Momma FB page about the EU and how they are considering quotas to force companies to retain a certain percentage of women on their Boards. I just read the most recent article in the Economist, which noteworthy, has an extremely patronizing headline: “Women in Business: Waving a Big Stick.” Once I checked my repulsion with that unnecessarily snarky and sexist headline, I found the article interesting and informative.  Last year, Viviane Reding, the EU Justice Commissioner, asked publicly listed firms to pledge to increase the proportion of women on boards to 30 percent by 2015 and 40 percent by 2020.  According to the article, it’s now been a year and only 24 firms signed the pledge.  She isn’t yet calling for quotas but the speculation is that she’s heading in that direction. Currently she’s taking a very democratic approach and asking for a three-month public consult on getting more women into boards. Right now 13.7 percent of board members in large EU firms are women, up from 8.5 percent in 2003. That’s a pretty paltry increase in a decade. Think about the technological advancements alone we’ve seen in the last decade. People were still using dial-up in 2003. Now we walk around with our iPhones and iPads. Was Mark Zuckerberg even out of high school in 2003? So we can leap ahead technologically yet when it comes to advancing women in business, we remain stagnant? Sidebar – why does this surprise me when the current heated political debate for the Republicans right now is centered around women’s healthcare….

Meanwhile over in Norway, not an EU member, quotas were introduced almost a decade ago and now the Norwegians have 40 percent female representation on boards up from 9 percent in 2003.

Here in the United States, it’s safe to say we have an uncomfortable discourse about quotas. Humor me for a minute. Let’s remove people from the equation and consider how these big changes work among US companies. For instance, when our vehicles become more fuel-efficient, is it because the automakers volunteer to change their fleets or is it because the government mandates they achieve a certain level of fuel efficiency?

On my last check, the government keeps on increasing the required fleet wide average and imposing  fines on the auto companies if they don’t achieve higher standards of fuel economy by certain target years. They don’t just arbitrarily set higher standards, they invite public comment, they hold hearings, they engage with the automotive engineers and they work up a new agreement.

The auto industry isn’t the only industry regulated by the government – in essence – forced to be pushed in a new direction. Does everyone like it, especially those in the industry ? Not necessarily. Does it force change?

Yes. Why? Because money(in the form of fines) talks.

So why the skepticism with quotas? When you peel back the layers, how is it any different?  Why do we automatically assume a woman is invited to become a Board Member because of the quota instead of her achievements? Why don’t we, instead, assume the quota is necessary because the old way of thinking isn’t spurring necessary change??

Which brings me to my next point – about the glass ceiling and the broken ladder.

On Sunday, The Guardian ran a story about the Institute of Leadership and Management’s new study revealing that organizations in England are “filtering out” top female talent. Crotchety old male bosses take much of the brunt of the blame. Charles Elvin, head of the Institute, is calling for changes in attitudes and management processes. Topping the list: flexible working. The Institute says the issue isn’t the glass ceiling, the issue is the barriers along the way that filter out female talent.

And pray tell, what is the most notable barrier?

FLEXIBLE WORKING ARRANGEMENTS of course.

Did you really need me to tell you that.

The article notes how companies all have diversity programs yet still can’t seem to retain women. Big surprise there. The article reveals survey results finding that 68 percent of women and 42 percent of men identified flexible working as the number one solution.

I just don’t understand why in this age of the iPhone and instant internet access wherever we go, why flexibility is such a battle. Why is face time still so relevant? Do we  need the current wave of senior staff to retire before we can see this change in attitude? Do we need more MEN to not only ask for but also USE flex time as an option in their work place to help spur this change? Flexibility would have kept me in my previous job – without even a hesitation – but it wasn’t an option.

I think the other key issue here is this – there is a difference between a company offering flexible working arrangements and then a company encouraging employees (male and female) to actually utilize the flexibility..and then one step further…still promote and elevate those who do work around flexible schedules. Sure, you can claim anything but the proof is in the pudding, and if those who take the time aren’t ever promoted, then no one is going to take the time. A few years ago, I gasped in response to the very generous paternity leave my friend’s husband’s law firm offer its employees. Her response “Yeah, but taking that time off is the kiss of death.”

Therein lies the rub, we need companies to do more than talk the talk. My favorite quote from the article in the Guardian is this: Companies need to “focus on achieving objectives rather than sitting in your seat.”

You got that right.

Let us out of our seats, let us get our jobs done and not worry about where it’s being done, and maybe more women will stay on that ladder. For some really interesting stats on women in the United States in government and business, check out my friend Valerie Young’s piece.

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One Response to Forget the Glass Ceiling, Fix the Ladder
  1. […] For more deep thoughts on women, leadership, and quotas, check out this post by my friend and colleague Wired Momma. […]

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