Has the glass ceiling really been cracked?

Taking issue — By on October 13, 2016 7:51 am

Female students outnumber male students in most disciplines in tertiary education. Yet women are still underrepresented in the top jobs in most sectors – including in tertiary education.

Helen Borne asked three of our academics for their views.

Toxic Culture

The glass ceiling is a myth. Recently I conducted a survey of 300 corporate crossovers (women who leave their corporate jobs and start their own business) in the UK and US, and asked them why did they leave to pursue their own business? The answers were surprising and gave more insight into the culture of today’s workplaces than into the burning entrepreneurial ambition of these women. In fact only six percent said they left because they had a passion to start their own business/be an entrepreneur.

Expecting frustration at not being able to smash the glass ceiling, a tiny one percent gave this as their reason for leaving. It became evident that the real reason is much more endemic than an intangible ceiling. It is the toxic culture that propels these women to consider other ways to make money. They realise that working in corporate environments doesn’t work for them anymore.

Frustrated, they start to disengage, valuing their time and autonomy above their salary and job. This is the catalyst for them to leave and set up their own enterprises.

The toxic culture was described as a combination of poor leadership, opaque decision making, not being heard or having their opinions valued. Ultimately they came to a point where they think “I’m worth more than this”.

What has surprised me about these results is how strongly this theme has played out. Even if they were offered more money to get a corporate job again, most of them would not accept, preferring control of their future, their time and their environment over the cash. So the opportunity to change this lies at all levels in an organisation, not just at the top when selecting candidates for senior roles. It is not enough to send women on yet another “women in leadership” programme. These outdated initiatives are based on the premise that “fixing” the women will solve the problem.

It isn’t the women that need to be fixed, but rather the organisation as a whole needs to shift in a way that encourages an integration between the genders. The organisations must cease insisting that women assimilate into a corporate culture designed by men which is now outdated and vulnerable as the future of work changes exponentially.

Wendy Kerr is Director of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Auckland, where she aims to grow business-savvy, entrepreneuriallyminded students. She is also a speaker in demand and a best-selling author, having written two books on female-led start-ups.

glass-ceiling2An economic issue

No, the glass ceiling has not been cracked. As I tell my students in The Practice of Politics, whilst there might not be a glass door, it’s towards the top we see the inequality most glaringly.

The more senior we get, the bigger the headache we face from constantly bumping our head on it. Often the barriers are subtle and thus hard (if not impossible) to fight. But they are there all right. Whilst it is wonderful to see the first woman presidential nominee in the US and Theresa May become Prime Minister of the UK, I grew up in the UK under Margaret Thatcher and the four other prime ministers in between were all men (Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron).

And this is an economic issue. We need to get the best and brightest in the decision-making positions, and biases during recruitment and assessment on gender but also on ethnicity mean we don’t get the best people in the top positions. So then we don’t get the best decisions made. Diversity is economically valuable: it enables people to speak up, to think outside the box and create more innovative policy solutions. A wider range of behaviours, skills, leadership styles, and perspectives always leads to the highest level of performance.

So I teach my students doing The Practice of Politics to be aware of this problem and to reflect on their own unconscious bias in the hope it makes them do better when they get into work. But this is just a drop in the ocean – a two-hour classes in one course in one subject. We need to train all our students thoroughly to support diversity to enable the next generation of recruiters, managers and leaders to do things better. All of us should be trained to be aware of unconscious bias and to be supportive of diversity. Not just because discrimination hurts those who come up against it, but because supporting diversity is the key to success for the organisation and society at large.

Associate Professor Jennifer Lees-Marshment from Politics and International Relations in the Faculty of Arts is a world expert in political marketing and management. See www.lees-marshment.org

Unconscious biases

I’ve seen a generation of change as I’ve gone from being an engineering student to becoming an engineering professor. As an undergraduate student I was never lectured by a female academic from the Faculty of Engineering – though we did have two female academics from the Stats Department (in the Faculty of Science) teaching into a couple of courses. The environment for undergraduates in my Department is quite different. I am the first woman to become a Head of Department in the Faculty of Engineering, and 15 percent of the Department’s academic staff are female. I also hold a non-executive directorship in the corporate world (as a board member of NZ Oil & Gas Ltd). I have received heart-felt comments from our female students as they graduate, showing how much they value having seen an example of a woman in the discipline who has taken her career to the highest levels.

How many of my department’s talented female graduates will reach the “top” of the career ladder in industry or academia? Does that depend on the life choices they make? My career started with many 80-hour work weeks while on tenure track at a well-regarded US institution. Would things look different for me if I had had care-giving responsibilities at that time? Or if my career had been secondary to that of my spouse?

The future of the young women I lecture relies on those a step ahead of them doing their best to avoid the unconscious biases we all have when it comes to questions of hiring, roles in key projects and promotions. While mentoring women is helpful, I believe ultimately it helps women to navigate the status quo without necessarily changing it. For the glass ceiling to truly shatter we need to see more conscious acts of sponsorship – where those above the glass ceiling reach out to actively and deliberately support the career trajectories of people of diverse backgrounds. That may take some bravery and trust – but in my opinion any organisation where senior people act as “sponsors” is better for it.

Professor Rosalind Archer is Head of Department – Engineering Science, Director of the Geothermal Institute, and Mercury Chair in Geothermal Reservoir Engineering, graduated with a BE in 1994 and returned to the University as a lecturer after completing a PhD at Stanford University. Rosalind was recently named winner of the Energy Engineer of the Year Award.

What do you think? Leave comments below.

Alternatively, you can email ingenio@auckland.ac.nz or post to Ingenio, Communications and Marketing, Private Bag 92019, Auckland Mail Centre, Auckland 1142. The views expressed above reflect personal opinions and are not those of the University of Auckland

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