Breaking through the Glass Ceiling

Breaking through the Glass Ceiling

Filter tag: Change Management and Executive Outplacement, Culture & Organisational Effectiveness, Leadership Capability, Strategies for Growth

Each March, organisations populate social feeds with praise for their female colleagues in celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. While a nice gesture and a much-deserved celebration of women’s success, in many cases it can highlight the ongoing challenges that female professionals experience all year long.

Our Rialto Executive Career Coaches work closely with some of the world’s most accomplished, successful, motivated, and qualified female executives to advance their careers. Despite their acclaim, achievements, education, accolades, and positions, many of these women express feelings of an ever-present glass ceiling above them and limiting how far they can climb and what they can accomplish. But where do these feelings stem from, what limitations construct that ‘ceiling,’ and how can women break through?


A Seat at the Table?

It’s no secret that diversity is one of the biggest issues businesses face. In February 2022, the UK Government published data that revealed that the FTSE 100, 250 and 350 all improved the number of women in leadership roles in 2021. 39.1% of UK FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women, a massive increase from 12.5% just 10 years ago. This increase has allowed the UK to leapfrog over countries such as Norway, which has mandatory representation quotas, to become second in the international rankings for board representation. There are over 700 more women in leadership roles in the FTSE 350, and the number of women in Chair roles rose to 48, up from 39 in 2020.

While these statistics show that we are moving in the right direction, when examined closer it becomes clear that we still have a long way to go. While 39.1% of FTSE 100 board positions are now held by women, there are only eight female chief executives in that group and no women of colour. When you expand the field to the FTSE 250 where many more board roles are available, you might expect representation to be higher as well. Yet, women in boardroom roles for the top 250 companies is lower that the FTSE 100 at just 36.8%. In the FTSE 350, a reported 72 companies are still below the previously set 33% target for women on boards. Overall, only 1 in 3 leadership roles and around 25% of all executive committee roles are held by women.


How Much Are Women Earning?

When examining compensation, the chasm between genders deepens. According to the latest ONS report at the time of publication, in 2021, the gender pay gap among full-time employees was 7.9%, up from 7.0% in 2020 but still lower than it was pre-pandemic at 9% in 2019. The largest closing of gender pay gap between now and before the pandemic was found among managers, directors, and senior officials, showing that female executives are beginning to become more fairly compensated but are still not paid as equals. It would appear that there is a long way to go in order to close this gap, as the ONS data indicates that the largest gender disparity is among the highest earners with the 90th percentile of full-time men’s earnings sitting at an astounding 16.1% higher than those of females in the 90th percentile.

The gender pay gap often varies wildly at the individual company level, as was evidenced on International Women’s Day 2022 when a Twitter account called ‘Gender Pay Gap Bot’ (@PayGapApp) spent the day retweeting UK companies’ #IWD22 messages with their median hourly pay gaps.

Over 100 companies were retweeted on the day across sectors such as government, higher education, sport, healthcare, professional services, retail, and more. Some of the figures were pleasantly surprising. Both IT company Infosys and the UK House of Commons were revealed to have gaps of less than 1%, with several other organisations paying their female staff equally or higher than their male counterparts. Among the highest paid are the women of Barnet Council who are paid an impressive 25.5% higher median hourly wage than their male colleagues and broadband company Hyperoptic whose female staff earn more than double at 55.8%. However, the bot revealed more bad than good, highlighting huge gaps for organisations such as McKinsey (22.3%), Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (41%), Refuge Charity (32%), the Daily Express newspaper (22.5%), Loughborough University (23.2%), the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (30%), and most hypocritically, women’s lingerie brand Boux Avenue (31.4%).

The hourly wage gap is only part of the challenge that female professionals face with compensation. Having to choose between family and professional success is an unfortunate decision that many women end up facing at some point in their careers. As men move up the pay ladder, women fall behind by either staying in lower paid positions, reducing their hours, or both to take on the responsibilities of raising their families while others will choose to drop out of work entirely.

According to recent market research, nearly six out of 10 women (58%) say caring responsibilities have stopped them applying for promotion or a new job and one in five (19%) have left a job because it was too hard to balance work and care. Over time, this imbalance of familial obligations has led to more men in senior roles and some very damaging mindsets. At the core of the issue is a longstanding assumption that senior roles inherently require long hours and constant availability, and thus cannot be done flexibly or part-time. Academic research into the matter has found that long working hours have been proven to be inherently gendered and to exacerbate the gender pay gap. Over time, these mindsets have led some women to believe that they need to sacrifice one in favour of the other and have created biases in employers that female executives may not be ‘up for the job.’ Both of these beliefs are untrue.


Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

Representation and imbalanced compensation are two of the most apparent and most widely addressed issues surrounding women in the workplace, but any female professional can attest that it is so much more than that. We asked our Rialto Executive Career Coaches which challenges they often see expressed by their female coaching clients, and for their career advice for overcoming these hurdles. Here is what they had to share:

  • Speak Up: Due to the aforementioned lack in representation, female executives often find themselves in the company of people who are not like them. Often, this can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, and may discourage some female executives from speaking their minds. Historical ideas of ‘femininity’ have conditioned us to believe that women who take charge, freely speak their opinions, and essentially behave in the same way as their male counterparts are viewed as off putting, bossy, cold, calculated, or worse. These are damaging societal ideas that we are progressing away from but have yet to fully overcome. For male executives, before you judge your female counterparts for speaking up, our advice is to consider whether you would ever think twice about doing the same. For female executives, our advice is to remember that you were hired for your role because of what you have to offer. By keeping your ideas to yourself or not speaking up when something is off, you are doing yourself, your position, your organisation, and your stakeholders a disservice. We know that telling you to ‘speak up’ is sometimes easier said than done, but just remember that that is what you are there to do. Standing in your power does not make you aggressive, pushy, loud, or rude. It just makes you good at your job!
  • Build Alliances Carefully: Getting your voice heard is much easier when you have the right support in your corner. But again, women are often surrounded by people who don’t look, think, or act like them. Much has been said about the idea of ‘women supporting women,’ but men need to do the same. Unfortunately, there are some people whose biases run too deep and too stubborn to be swayed, but you’ll find that not everyone is working against you. Instead of wasting time trying to change minds that are unwilling to budge, choose your allies wisely and try to find strength in numbers instead. It’s a sad truth, but some people may be more open to hearing the same idea in a different voice. At the end of the day, the best interest of the organisation needs to come first and biases should not get in the way with that. You’ll find peers who agree and who will back you, helping to get your voice heard all the way through the top of the organisation. You are better off spending your time building and strengthening relationships with these individuals than you are trying to get through to someone who seems unwilling to really listen.
  • Don’t Undersell Yourself: If you are putting in the same amount of work at the same level as your male counterparts, then there is absolutely no reason why you should be paid any less. Historically, asking your peers about their salaries has been considered ‘impolite’ or taboo, but there is really nothing wrong with doing so. Having these conversations is the best way to benchmark and to create transparency about whether or not the team is being fairly compensated. Ask the question. You’ll often find that your colleagues are happy to share their figures with you, and those who aren’t will decline and that’s that. Knowing what you could be earning within your same organisation, level, or department compared to what you actually are earning helps provide you with leverage for negotiation. Do not be afraid to ask for what you deserve. If others at your level are being paid higher, it’s often not because they were more qualified or were offered that. It’s often the case that they were simply more willing to ask for it or negotiated after receiving an initial offer. Our advice is to research the market. Use sites like Glassdoor to benchmark what others in your role earn in your city. Take all of these figures with you into salary or raise discussions. Know your number, and don’t back down. If you present these figures to your employer and they are unwilling to close the gap, do not be afraid to move on to a company that will value your work and compensate you appropriately. Women are often told that our contributions, skills, knowledge, and experience are ‘invaluable,’ but that praise isn’t quite enough. All of those factors combine to create a monetary value for the organisation, so why shouldn’t they create monetary value for you? Put a price on your skills and contributions, and do not sell yourself short.
  • Set Boundaries: Women have often been the ones to sacrifice for the sake of family, but that doesn’t have to be the case. If the pandemic taught us anything, it is how to achieve better balance. The pandemic’s enforced remote work helped to challenge the misconception that senior executive roles cannot be done flexibly, and hopefully hybrid working becoming the norm will help to support this even further. Hybrid and flexible working models have made it much easier for working parents to be present for their children. This applies to both male and female caregivers, which in turn has helped the responsibilities of childminding become more balanced. However, women are finding it easier now to be both parents and professionals in these models as they do not require a choice between the two. Hybrid is also helping professionals draw clearer lines between their working and home lives and better manage both. This new era of work will likely see professionals regardless of gender setting higher standards and demanding more from their working life. It is essential that female executives determine what their non-negotiables are and stick to them. If flexible working models mean not having to sacrifice, then push for that. Now that we know most of our jobs can be done from anywhere, there is no reason to sideline oneself for the sake of having a family. If your current employer is not willing to work with you on that, perhaps it is time to find one who will. You are not asking for ‘too much’ by having boundaries and not settling. You’re simply commanding the respect you deserve as both a professional and a person with a life outside of their career.

For any real change to happen it’s not just women who need to speak up, demand more, set boundaries, or work together. Male executives, especially those with influence on personnel decisions, need to look inwards to challenge their own biases and assess how those beliefs and opinions might be impacting their decision making. Employers need to actively promote diversity and equality in their organisations rather than just talking about it. We can all do better to be more empathetic, to challenge what we see happening around us, and to speak in support of those we feel are being treated unfairly. The longer we continue to let the ‘status quo’ continue simply because it might not be effecting us directly, the thicker and thicker that glass ceiling gets and the harder it is to break through. Change starts and ends with us all.



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