The glass ceiling: fact or fiction?
Posted on March 5, 2012
Hello, and many thanks to the organisers for inviting me to speak at this event. I hope you have a really successful International Women’s Week.
Okay, let’s have a look at some statistics.
I’ll start with Westminster.
According to the most recent figures from Fawcett, men now outnumber women 4 to 1 in Westminster. In fact only 22% of MPs are women, 22% of peers are women, and 17% (20 out of 119) of government ministers are women.
In local politics, while 31% of elected councillors are women, only 13% of local authority leaders are women.
As far as the media goes, there are only 2 female editors of national newspapers in this country and, according to a recent piece of research carried out for the Guardian, 78% of newspaper articles are written by men; 72% of BBC Question Time contributors are men, and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4’s Today programme are men.
Women make up a majority of full-time teachers, but only just over a third of secondary school heads are women.
Only 15% of high court judges are women, and there’s only one female supreme high court judge.
Only 22% of senior managers are women. And while women are estimated to be responsible for about 70% of household purchasing power, while they make up 46% of the economically active workforce and over half of all university graduates, their average representation in the business world stands at 10.2%. Only 14.2% of directors on FTSE 100 boards are women.
And that’s it for the statistics. But I do think it’s important to hear them because it’s only when we examine the numbers like that that we get a really clear picture of how things stand.
And how do they stand?
Well, there are only two logical conclusions that can be drawn from such staggering differences between men’s and women’s representation on the highest rungs of just about every career ladder out there. Either women are just really really crap at their chosen careers, or there’s something else going on that’s preventing them from getting to the top.
And my experience tells me that women are not really really crap.
But don’t just take my word for it. Did you know for instance that companies with women on their boards have been found to outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales (oops, statistics again, sorry), a 66% higher return in invested capital, and a 53% higher return on equity?
Women are good for business. Women are good for employers.
Sadly though it doesn’t work the other way. Because clearly neither business nor employers are particularly good for women.
So what is it exactly that’s standing in our way?
Which brings us to glass ceilings and sticky floors, the invisible barriers that both prevent women from rising to the top of their professions, and in a large number of cases keep them from even beginning any kind of ascent away from the low paid low status jobs where their employment is disproportionately concentrated.
Invisible barriers such as systemic or institutional sexism. Covert sexism, that means that while employers are not directly discriminating against women, because that would be unlawful, what they do have are practices that make women’s advancement more difficult.
They might for instance insist on holding residential away days or training events without making any provision for childcare. Or they might do a lot of their key networking and planning on the golf course or in lap dancing clubs and other sex encounter establishments.
There might be a long hours culture, where employees are expected to stay late no matter what their domestic commitments in order to get the job done, night after night after night, because work-life balance is a foreign country, and in our capitalist money-beats-all culture we’re all supposed to act as though we don’t have children, or home lives, or interests outside of the organisations we’ve committed to working for.
Many, too many, businesses are still headed by those who place more merit in the old boy networks and the old school tie than they do people’s ability to actually do the work. And while not many business tycoons are as honest as Sir Alan Sugar was when he admitted that no one would want to employ a pregnant woman, it’s becoming increasingly more evident that plenty of other business heads secretly agree with him.
Women are still being held back because workplaces are not women friendly: there aren’t enough workplace nurseries, and the cost of alternative childcare can be prohibitive. There’s a reluctance to bring in family-friendly working policies, such as flexible working or condensed hours, and there’s still a lot of indirect discrimination going on in the way employers recruit, hire, promote and retain their employees.
So that’s the glass ceiling.
But I think things go even deeper than that.
Because I think part of the reason women’s representation at the very highest levels of business, and politics, and the media, is so paltry, begins before women even make it into the workplace.
Which brings us to the patriarchy. The rule of men.
Patriarchy. The way society, and that includes the early socialisation of our children and the gender stereotyping that attempts to dictate the different paths our boys and girls should follow; that includes our education system and the labour market, has been designed and shaped to fit men’s needs. Men made the rules, and the rules they made, the systems they set up, help them hold on to power.
That’s what’s holding us back.
And every time we challenge that power, every time women make progress in so-called ‘men’s spheres’, we’re met with a backlash.
It’s one step forward, and two steps back. What better illustration of this is there than the fact that despite us being over 40 years away from the equal pay act we still don’t have equal pay, and that despite more and more women joining the workforce over the past few decades, women’s unemployment now stands at a record 25 year high.
Twice as many women lost their jobs in the final quarter of 2011 as men. 1.12 million women are now out of work.
But what can we do to tackle all this? What can we do to ensure our daughters and our granddaughters are not restricted by the same barriers?
Well, obviously as a trade unionist I’d like to encourage all of you at the very first opportunity you get when you commence your careers to join whichever trade union services your workplace. Unions brought us many of the gains we’re now struggling to maintain: holiday pay; sickness pay; maternity leave and pay, the list goes on.
But I also want us, women, to think about doing things differently.
Just as an example, where women have succeeded in getting to the top in numbers is the voluntary sector, where 48% of chief execs are now women. I think you’ll find in a lot of cases those chief execs are running by women for women organisations, organisations set up by women, run by women, helping women.
And I want us to think about ways of working, ways of creating success, that do not simply replicate patriarchal, hierarchical power structures.
I want us to do things differently, to be more imaginative. Because if the last century or so has taught us anything it’s that the system as it is now isn’t working. It’s not working for women, and it’s not working for the working class.
And it’s time for a change.