Home Archive July/August 2011 Smashing the glass ceiling
Smashing the glass ceiling
Tuesday, 26 July 2011 11:16
Coined by two female employees of Hewlett Packard in 1979, the ‘glass ceiling’ denying women top jobs is a common phenomenon: But with women well represented in senior PR roles, PRCA chairman Sally Costerton wonders whether it’s being used as an excuse for unfulfilled potential 
Male Female Ratio Chart - completed v 1.jpgI am not a ceiling denier. But I am increasingly of the view that overuse of two expressions – “the glass ceiling” and “you can’t have it all” – is holding back many qualified women of all ages from considering a career in business.
Definition is a big part of the problem. The frequently used glass ceiling stats are actually taken from research on the UK’s top 350 companies (as in the recent Davies report) commissioned by David Cameron. There are far fewer women than men on these boards – yes. But these companies represent a small part of the economy and in fact women are succeeding in many other areas of business – albeit with a much lower profile.
PRCA data (see infographic) shows there are now more women in senior roles in large agencies and they are dominant in smaller ones. Yes, childcare is a serious issue. But less well publicised is the deliberate decision of excellent candidates to leave big companies altogether. A new group ‘Where the Bright Women Are’ recently published research showing that 97% of the ‘invisible’ women they talked to are still working, earning plenty of money and feeling fulfilled by their careers. But now they are working for themselves. One factor is children – the web enables more flexible working patterns. But it is also a rejection of the culture of big companies with working styles better suited to men – long hours, presenteeism and grandstanding. Men tend to see this as part of the game. Women don’t, and get frustrated and irritated. But we are hardwired differently from DNA up, with different brains and preferences, so this shouldn’t be surprising or a sign of female failure. It’s a simple choice to succeed on our own terms.
When I looked into it, this goes deeper than I thought. An avowed follower of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, I hadn’t realised that there is research in the US showing the impact of this hardwiring in the workplace. ‘Women Don’t Ask’, a report by Babcock and Laschever, shows how sex differences in earnings emerge soon after graduation from university because young men routinely negotiate higher starting pay while most young women fail to do so. In surveys, when asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating men picked “winning a ball game” or a “wrestling match” while women picked “going to the dentist”. These differences in approach develop over time into a substantive earnings gap – even among people who went to the same universities and have the same qualifications, including MBA graduates.
I have never seen myself as a feminist, but in the past few years I have begun to find myself an unintentional spokesperson for senior working women. I’m always asked, ‘Why do you think you broke through the glass ceiling?’ When you explain that your husband runs the family they look at you as though you must eat babies for breakfast and your life partner must be some poor doormat incapable of getting a proper job. I am fed up with justifying life as a senior woman. My research (from colleagues, friends and clients – I can’t find any published data on this which is itself interesting) reveals that in fact many of the senior women in the PR industry have partners who run the family. And trust me, they’re not married to nine-stone weaklings.
Recently there has been some ‘welcome’ discussion of these issues in the media, although it has led to the coining of the term ‘beta male’. While I find this unhelpful, our collective tendency to label comes from the emphasis on gender equality that has been the dominant feature of this issue for the last thirty Inforgraphic: Caroline Beavon years or so. In the struggle to ensure women in developed societies are free to take up any occupation or career, battle lines have been drawn which often serve to emphasise differences rather than similarities.
But the ‘You can’t have it all’ lobby is even worse. Endless repetition of this mantra can make even the most balanced women believe this myth. Men are never admonished for wanting to have it all. Or expected to defend their wives running the family. I reject the idea that you have to choose. That you can’t be a good businesswoman at a senior level and also have friends, a good partnership and children.
We must get away from polarised images of tough women stalking boardrooms in power suits becoming men or hippy earth mothers growing tomatoes while teaching their children to start their own festival. It is a false choice and only serves to damage women’s confidence. Ironically there is a built-in assumption that if you do succeed in the boardroom you have done it by abandoning the sisterhood and becoming a man – coverage of Nicola Horlick and Lady Thatcher springs to mind. There’s that idea of a false choice again. Many of my colleagues, competitors and friends are men. And they’re great – to a man. Smart, kind, good fun, and successful. I dislike the idea that to be their peer I have to fight them. That for me to win they have to lose.
Oddly this zero sum game idea is in my experience promoted exclusively by women. We are also part of the problem and get in our own way too often. It’s depressingly well-documented that women are often the biggest barrier to other women climbing the career ladder. At a party recently a woman (who runs her own company) asked my husband what he does all day. When he – patiently – told her, she volunteered that it would never have occurred to ask him if he had been a woman.
We really do have to try to stop being our own worst enemies. We make crazy demands of ourselves where we are bound to be disappointed. This ‘alpha imperative’ is dangerous and needs to be more frequently questioned. Gok Wan’s firm encouragement of us to be kind to ourselves is surprisingly radical. His message is bang on. “You go, girl.” Sally Costerton is chairman the PRCA and chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton. 
Sally Costerton is chairman the PRCA and chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton.
Inforgraphic: Caroline Beavon