It's not the glass ceiling that's stopping women getting to the top of business

Companies have to mend the 'broken windows' that prevent women advancing, says Jean Martin.

by Jean Martin
Last Updated: 25 Aug 2015

The glass ceiling, that familiar and too-often impenetrable barrier to female advancement in the workplace, is one of the most common phrases in the diversity debate. But it’s an analogy that doesn’t fully reflect the actual obstacles to equality today.   

The reality is that female staff leave companies for a wide variety of reasons, from a range of positions in the corporate hierarchy. It doesn’t happen overnight or when they reach a certain level. Women make up 51% of the non-management workforce. That goes down to 40% for first and mid-level positions, 32% at department head level and just 21% at the top executive level. Many studies have shown that ability is not the issue, as there is very little difference in leadership capabilities across genders. So what’s stopping these women from moving up?

While the glass ceiling is a powerful and important metaphor, there is no one big barrier at a specific point that blocks women from fulfilling their leadership potential. A CEB survey of women found the real problem is not one, but many: a series of small issues that they can face daily, which accumulate and slow their journey, or stop their progress up the corporate ladder altogether.

There are hundreds of instances of managers overlooking women in meetings, ignoring their flexi-time requests, or assuming they might not want that high-risk, high-reward assignment because their supposed priority is to spend time with their family. Our research shows that it is this collection of micro-decisions, rather than one macro-issue, that ultimately lead to a startling lack of diversity at the top of many companies.

There is a perhaps surprising parallel to the broken windows theory of crime prevention, which holds that small acts of crime, such as littering, graffiti, or broken windows, will escalate to more serious ones if ignored. But diversity issues are very similar. Small decisions made the same way many times aggregate to create a more serious lack of fair and equal opportunity for women and suggest that the organisation does not support their need. As with small criminal acts, those seemingly innocuous oversights, inconveniences and omissions by employers will build up and will often eventually drive out valuable female talent.

Moreover, processes and job designs simply have not evolved to take gender differences into account properly. Just take the common practice of companies having a single, annual round of promotions. Women are far more likely to miss out on the opportunity if they happen to be on maternity leave during the promotion period, or if they are reintegrating after returning from leave.

As with all things in life, prevention is better than cure. Smart companies today will focus their efforts on preventative measures to address what might look like minor challenges in the way of female advancement. They put the time in to understand and engage female employees early in their careers. They help women achieve their full leadership potential by ‘mending the windows’, whether that means enabling flexible working practices, openly discussing career ambitions and opportunities, or seeking new ways to support and quickly reintegrate those who have taken maternity leave.

Our research shows that companies with diverse leadership generate twice the revenue and profit growth as those without. Mend the ‘broken windows’ and ensure manager decisions and company policies support equal opportunity throughout a woman’s career. Then the so-called ceiling will be much easier to crack.

Jean Martin is talent solutions architect at member-based advisory and research company CEB.

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