Executive Transition: Revisiting the Glass Ceiling

Executive Transition: Revisiting the Glass Ceiling

Filter tag: Change Management and Executive Outplacement, Customer & Brand, Leadership Capability

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 was to ‘Embrace Equity,’ which calls for discussions about why equal opportunities are not enough to reach true gender parity. Rialto Executive Career Coaches have been reviewing the changes that have taken place since our previous blog exploring the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ that hinders female leaders from progressing beyond a certain point.

What was once criticised as a ‘tick box exercise’ has continued to evolve as a critical business priority. Beyond simply being ‘the right thing to do,’ businesses have come to appreciate that championing equality in leadership can only make an organisation stronger and more resilient. Introducing voices and perspectives that differ from one another contributes to more agile and informed decision making. It’s no wonder why so many businesses are appointing female senior executives to key leadership positions.

Despite this progress, accomplished female executive continue to seek support from our Executive Career Coaches to navigate the challenges and limitations that persists in the form of the glass ceiling effect. With barriers continuing to exist as they progress into senior leadership positions, how can individuals break through? How can businesses aim to remove these invisible barriers? Where do we stand, and where do we go from here?


Progress, But Not Yet Perfect

The past several years have seen major progress in terms of gender equity, especially at the senior level. In fact, the annual FTSE Women Leaders Review found that 40.2% of directors at the UK’s largest listed companies were women in 2022, surpassing the voluntary threshold set for 2025 three years ahead of schedule. This figure is just over four times higher than it was in 2011 when it stood at a mere 9.5%

In the FTSE 100, female representation on boards stands at 40.5%, a marginal increase on 39.1% in 2021. This equates to 431 of 1063 directorships being held by women. Only seven of the UK’s top 100 companies fall short of the previous 33% target.

64 companies have at least one woman in the key roles of Chair, SID, CEO or FD, while a further four companies have women holding three out of those four positions. In 2022, 48% of board appointments for FTSE 100 companies went to women and 23% of FD roles in these companies are held by women. But only nine CEO roles are held by women at this level.

What we have viewed is that representation of female executives overall at the FTSE 100 level continues to improve, with 23 companies already meeting the 40% women Executives target and a further 31 companies meeting the previous 33% target. In terms of female executives’ functional roles in the FTSE 100, their lowest representation is as CIO (21%) and their highest is as Human Resources Director (69%).

Today, women occupy two out of five board seats in the FTSE 350, with almost a fifth of FTSE 350 boards having a woman chair despite there being only 21 female chief executives across the main listed markets. Across the FTSE 350, 1,202 of the 3,000 board seats and 6,660 of the 20,000 leadership roles were held by women in 2022. The Review also found that the number of all-male executive committees in the FTSE 350 fell to 10 in 2022 from 54 in 2017, but female representation in these committees stands at just 27% and could still be further improved.

The 2022 Review included data on the UK’s top 50 private companies for the first time. This data revealed that in these companies, the proportion of women on boards averages at about 31%. A third of these companies reported that more than 40% of directors were women, while more than half reported female representation that is well below the average. Of the top 50 private UK companies, 19 had boards that were either all male or included just one female director. In the top 50 private companies, the figure for women’s representation on executive committees and direct reports stood at 34.3%.

Because the way top level management is structured in private companies sometimes differs from the leadership structure of publicly listed organisations, it is difficult to truly compare progress. Looking at the data, it is clearly apparent that the UK has made excellent strides in both private and public company leadership, but there is still some way to go before true gender equity is reached.

Parity is yet to be reached in terms of payment as well. According to Government data, 2022 UK gender pay gap had an average 5.45% and a median of 9.71%. In monetary terms, the average hourly difference in ordinary pay is £1.44 compared to £1.48 in 2021 and the median hourly difference is £2.41 (£2.68 the previous year). Again, small improvements are occurring year on year, but we are still shy of true equality.


Executive Transition Top Challenges

Despite this progress, something still stands in the way of true gender equality at the senior level. From speaking with our female clients looking for their next executive career transition, our Executive Career Coaches have shared some of the top barriers they continue to identify today:

  • Unconscious Bias: We all have biases. The ones we are not consciously aware of can often be more detrimental than the ones we know we have. These biases are developed throughout life as we are shaped by our family, environment, peers, culture, education, society, and more. These beliefs may not reflect truth, but influence how we view the world and our place in it. Sometimes, that can bleed into our professional lives with detrimental effects.

For example, what we feel may be anecdotal office humour can actually be the reflection and perpetuation of harmful, long-held ideas that hinder true progress. One such ‘stereotype’ is the idea of female bosses as cold, calculated, or downright mean. This characterisation is rooted in deep-seated biases held by both genders to feel that success is tied to ‘male’ qualities. Because the top has been male dominated for so long, many female executives unconsciously believe they must take on more masculine traits and behaviours to be accepted and to succeed. Their male counterparts expect this of them, but this expectation is also in conflict with their perception of femininity and what a woman ‘should’ act like. Whether realised or not, these biases held by both parties have a detrimental effect on the decisions involved with appointing senior executives to key leadership positions. These biases may lead women to adapt their management style in an ineffective way or create doubt among the men involved in the hiring process about appointing a woman to a key role.

  • Imposter Syndrome: Of course, these biases and a lack of representation in general can lead to other adverse outcomes such as imposter syndrome. These nagging, deep-rooted beliefs may hinder female executives’ progress by making them question themselves unnecessarily. Our Executive Career Coaches regularly tackle this issue with both male and female senior executives, but the latter group are more likely to experience imposter syndrome related setbacks. A lack of representation and unconscious ideas about success and leadership may prevent well-equipped women from aiming for roles they are qualified and suited for or may shake their confidence once they ascend to these roles.
  • Misunderstanding of ‘Equality’: Gender parity does not necessarily mean treating women and men the exact same at work. As discussed, our societally shaped beliefs of masculinity and femininity and what success has historically looked like can potentially have negative effects on who we put in leadership positions and what sorts of traits and behaviours we accept from them. Gender equality does not mean expecting women to mimic the behaviours and actions of their male counterparts when appointed to senior leadership. True gender equality will involve reshaping culture to support and celebrate everyone’s unique contributions and attributes whilst also introducing structures and practices that support both sexes equally. This will likely involve having to overcome some of the barriers still present in wider society. For example, women continue to bear a heavier burden when it comes to balancing work and family, despite progress in recent decades to bring about gender equality in the workplace. We also found that younger female leaders who have become mothers are still among the most likely to say that being a working parent makes it harder for them to get ahead in their career. For true equality to exist, this can no longer be the case.
  • The Tech Barrier: Recently, an increasing number of organisations have been implementing artificial intelligence (AI) tools to their recruitment processes. While these technologies are not inherently biased, they are trained by humans who inherently possess bias and are trained on datasets that may perpetuate negative outcomes. With these tools, what you put in is what you get out. In some cases, recruiting talent this way can help to remove human bias from the equation by blindly evaluating candidates on their suitability for the role alone. In other cases, these algorithms and tools can exacerbate existing problems in the organisation. For example, if a company trains their AI to identify suitable candidates based on their existing and historical workforce, the AI will use those parameters to assess the CVs it is fed. If that company has been historically male dominated or has hired people from specific ethnicities, geographical areas, educational backgrounds, and so on, the AI has been trained to find more of the same. If not overseen properly, this can lead to excellent candidates being overlooked and a perpetuation of the organisation’s lack of diversity. It is critical to keep a human in the loop for this process and to keep this possibility for bias in mind if using AI for hiring purposes.


Advice from our Executive Coaches

Overcoming the barriers to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ phenomenon requires businesses and individuals to work jointly together. For both groups, our Executive Career Coaches advise the following:

  • Challenge Yourself and Others: Most of our biases are unconscious, but that does not mean they do not manifest themselves in our everyday lives. If you find this happening to you, it is essential to nip it in the bud when you become conscious of it. Question if you truly believe it, and where that belief may stem from. Now that you have identified that you have this bias or belief, you can consciously work towards remedying it. At the same time, we need to hold our peers accountable, both male and female. If ever you pick up on something from someone else, discuss it with them in private. Have the hard conversations. That is the only way we are going to improve. From an organisational standpoint, intentional action and education are the paths forward. Revisit your D&I initiatives. Are they meeting expectations and generating real impact, or has the business been simply treating these as tick box exercises? Is there anything you could be doing better to bolster different groups? It is also wise to revisit your training efforts to ensure they reflect the right ideals. Offer training on unconscious biases to help your people identify and address them.
  • Create Cultures of Equity: Training individuals to reflect, improve, and become more inclusive can help to create an overall culture of awareness and equality. Organisations and their people should aim to create an environment that recognises and celebrates the differences among its members, and the reassurance that all are empowered to succeed. When all employees are encouraged to be their best selves and reach their full potential, it’s not just good for women or people of colour. It’s good for business. Encourage communication and collaboration, but most of all, ensure everyone feels heard.

Those operating in the C-suite or at senior level often have cultures of their own, where informal networks are critical for gaining influence and forging bonds. Camaraderie can sometimes be formed through hobbies or activities outside of work which can lead to those who have other responsibilities or interests being excluded.  These networks are important for communication and decision making, but at times can ostracise those on the outside. As these networks are embedded deeply into business life, eliminating them altogether is unrealistic. Instead, the aim should be to evolve the culture of the leadership team. These networks can continue to exist so long as they do not create communication silos between those on the inside and those outside. Ensure all parties are kept informed and encouraged to speak openly and honestly with one another. It is important that these discussions flow across all forms of communication. You do not need to be friends with your colleagues outside of work, but it is important not to let those friendships get in the way of how you collaborate with one another. A successful leadership team is one where everyone feels comfortable and equally empowered to speak their mind honestly and transparently without fear of retribution, regardless of their gender or any other factor.

  • Embrace Flexibility: Hybrid working models have become the norm for many companies and embracing more flexibility can help promote better parity amongst men and women in the organisation. Increased flexibility can help improve work life balance, and ease some of the additional pressures placed on female employees. For example, allowing hybrid or flexible working schedules to suit the needs of both male and female staff with children can help keep women in the workforce instead of forcing one parent out to bear the responsibilities of childcare and parenthood on their own. In addition to maternity leave, consider offering comparable paternity leave to male employees, affording them the same opportunity to bond with their new family members and support their partners. But also understand that staff with children are not the only ones entitled to flexibility. True equality in your organisation will involve enabling access to privileges for all your staff regardless of their situation. Just as you offer flexibility to your staff to be with their children, encourage your childfree staff to take time out for their hobbies, relationships, and wellbeing to prevent burnout. Greater work life balance has become a major priority for younger staff of both genders, and your ability to deliver on this now will help shape and strengthen your future workforce.

Despite some great progress over the past year, the glass ceiling continues to be a reality for many female executives. But equally, each person has the power to break through. With the right mindset, support, and a little creativity, there are ways to feel empowered, identify solutions, and pave a path to success.

If you would like to arrange a confidential discussion to explore how our Executive Coaching, Executive Transition or Executive Outplacement support could help you to maintain your career trajectory, speak to our team on +44 (0)20 3746 2960 or contact us via email at info@rialtoconsultancy.com

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The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 was to ‘Embrace Equity,’ which calls for discussions about why equal opportunities are…

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