The glass ceiling: Cracked, but not broken

Work culture and structure remain impediments to women achieving their full potential. Tackling preconceived notions is therefore key to changing the status quo, a recent conference heard. Lorna Hutchinson reports.
Source: Adobe Stock

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

04 May 2021

While awareness is building on issues such as parental leave and flexible working, achieving true gender equality in the workplace remains generations away. This was the overriding message of a recent Dods Diversity & Inclusion online conference entitled Supporting Women at Work, which looked at how women can navigate issues blighting their careers such as the ‘broken rung’ and the ‘motherhood penalty’.

Delivering the conference’s keynote speech, Irish EPP deputy Frances Fitzgerald described the issues of work equality and inclusion for women, as “a marathon, not a sprint.” She said, “We have to be unashamedly talking about these issues, because they affect the quality of our lives, they affect the quality of our society - the individual experiences we all have at work and at home - and they are worthy of the deepest attention.” She explained that the “burden of equality” must be taken off the shoulders of women and onto male leaders, adding, “we have so many male leaders around the world – we have to share this task with men, with male champions, because we’re in this together.”

The former Irish Deputy Prime Minister explained, “Equality in life impacts on women and men and children. When we survey the landscape today, what we have to say is that a young boy and a young girl, starting out, may have equal opportunities, but the outcome in terms of where they arrive at, can be different, simply because of their gender - that’s the reality. We all thought that equal opportunities would lead to equal outcomes, well it doesn’t, it’s more nuanced. It’s not enough to name the issues, we have to work very hard to rectify them. We have to have clear implementation measures, clear monitoring, clear targets – I’ve discovered throughout my career that’s extremely important.”

“The data tells us that the glass ceiling is cracked but it is certainly not broken and the current rate of change that we’re seeing in organisations is actually quite depressing”

Lisa Jones, Business Angel Investor

Fitzgerald explained that a 2018 report by the International Monetary Fund - when former French minister Christine Lagarde was chair - showed the economic contributions lost by not ensuring gender equality. “Estimates show that closing the gender gap in employment could increase GDP in some developing countries by an average of 35 percent, of which 7 to 8 percent are productivity gains due to gender diversity.” Fitzgerald went on, “My experience over the years, when we’re doing these programmes on diversity and inclusion, is that they very often leave out the economic gains for companies – they are quite striking. Adding one more woman to a firm’s senior management or corporate board, while keeping the size of the board unchanged, is associated with an 18-30 point higher return on assets. And if banks and financial supervisors increased the share of women in senior positions, I believe the banking sector would be more stable too.”

Turning to the outbreak of COVID-19 and its effects on work-life balance for women, Fitzgerald pointed out that the number of research papers by women have decreased due to the extra caring responsibilities that women have taken on during the pandemic. “We all wanted to work from home, we thought it would give us flexibility, but let’s be very careful in analysing how it’s actually working: are managers reaching out to staff at home enough? Do we actually know the quality of the experience? Working at home is not a substitute for childcare. Many lone parents as well as couples are having real difficulties because childcare in many countries was not seen as essential during the pandemic. There is some evidence, with younger men and younger generations, we are seeing changes in terms of sharing responsibilities, but overall during the pandemic women have carried more of the care responsibilities. Whether women’s careers will suffer, I think there’s a question mark around that as well.”

Discussing gender parity at work, Charlotte Woodworth, Gender Equality Campaign Director at responsible business network Business in the Community, started her presentation by saying that the labour market remains unequal. “We still face a situation where women typically earn about 20 percent less than men. Women still have less power, so the higher up the [management] tree you go, the less likely you are to see women. Women are more likely to face gender-based harassment and are more likely to work in insecure, less guaranteed, roles – perhaps part-time hours, perhaps gig economy jobs.”

“With poor working cultures women are much more likely to report being excluded at work, being undervalued at work, feeling like they’re not respected or heard at work”

Charlotte Woodworth, Gender Equality Campaign Director at Business in the Community

Woodworth said there were three main reasons why women experience such levels of inequality at work. “First off, inflexible expectations about how and where work is done. We still have a situation where the working world, certainly pre-COVID-19, was still designed around the idea that there was somebody at home running the household and there was somebody at work earning the money.” She said that biased attitudes - conscious or unconscious - about who can do certain types of jobs have led to certain occupations or sub-sectors becoming very male-dominated and others female-dominated. “That can also feed that idea of who gets to the top; that old-fashioned idea of what leadership looks like.” Woodworth also highlighted sexual harassment as another reason for inequality at work. “With poor working cultures women are much more likely to report being excluded at work, being undervalued at work, feeling like they’re not heard at work, and in some cases experiencing sexual harassment or gender-based discrimination at work.”

Nevertheless, Woodworth said that while COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our lives, the pandemic has also meant that “we’re really reconsidering how we’re doing things.” She explained, “The cards have been thrown up in the air and now is the moment when we can decide how they land. There are some incredible opportunities to really accelerate progress in achieving gender equality at work. To get to a place where it’s not thought of as an add-on, but rather something that’s really hard-wired into the new normal that we create. The biggest of those is around the changed expectations of how and where work is done.”

Turning to the issues of the ‘broken rung’ and the ‘glass ceiling’ - key barriers to women’s progression - Lisa Jones, an active business angel investor, said there are many barriers that exist and different barriers within different organisations. She explained, “The data tells us that the glass ceiling is cracked but it is certainly not broken, and the current rate of change that we’re seeing in organisations is actually quite depressing.”

Breaking down what “barriers” really mean, Jones said that the barriers working women face are around pay, promotion, and behaviours and expectations, which aim to fit women into male standards of success. “There are issues around confidence, around competence, and if we don’t navigate those barriers well, we [women] think that we’re not good enough for the next step.” Jones said that although the data paints a depressing picture, it is possible for a woman to navigate her way to career success. “It takes time and it takes understanding of the organisation and how you navigate that well. I think role models for us all are really important. In any organisation, my view is that if you can see it, you can be it. And if you can’t see it then you’ve got to ask some serious questions.”

“Estimates show that closing the gender gap in employment could increase GDP in some developing countries by an average of 35 percent, of which 7 to 8 percent are productivity gains due to gender diversity” 
Frances Fitzgerald MEP

Discussing the ‘Motherhood Penalty’, Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive of work-life balance charity Working Families, argued that working from home is no substitute for childcare. “We know that only two in ten jobs are advertised with flexible options. We know that in the UK, 54,000 pregnant women and new mothers leave their jobs each year because of maternity discrimination. And of course we know that women take on the majority of unpaid care and are more likely to be low paid and in insecure employment.”

Van Zyl explained that the Coronavirus pandemic had tested working parents “like never before.” She added, “This clash between work and family life has been writ large in workplaces and on video calls across the country. But changes that employers said could not be done, have happened literally in a number of weeks, and we now know that it is possible to make changes to the way in which we work that people had previously said were impossible. There is an emerging consensus that the world of work has changed forever.” She concluded, “regressing back to the traditional view that men go to work and women stay at home would be a false economy.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Lorna Hutchinson - MEPs come out in force against Hungarian anti-LGBTIQ law at Budapest Pride

Share this page