Cracking the glass ceiling

by Patricia Mansfield-Devine

[Published in: Ethical Performance]

This is set to be an important year for working women in Europe. Legislation tabled by Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission, is aiming to crack the ‘glass ceiling’ that keeps women across Europe in lower-level roles at work, where they wield less influence and command smaller salaries.

Currently, women in Europe have to work 59 extra days to get to the same salary as their male counterparts, but the ‘Proposal on increasing Gender Equality in the Boardrooms of Listed Companies’ aims to change that by boosting women’s representation on corporate boards of administration.

Currently, across Europe, more than 96 out of 100 company presidents are men. Some 85 per cent of non-executive board members and 91.1 per cent of executive board members are also men, while women make up only 15 per cent and 8.9 per cent respectively. Voluntary initiatives have failed to improve this figure and the EC believes that legislation is now required Europe-wide, especially as two thirds of member states have introduced no legislation at all, and there the situation has generally not improved or actually worsened.

However, EU legislation, which aims to increase the percentage of women non-executive directors to 40 per cent, will only apply to firms listed on the stock exchange, so self-regulatory measures are also required, and here the Norwegian model is being used as a paradigm.

Norway increased the proportion of women in boardrooms from 8.5 per cent in 2003 to 44.2 per cent by 2008 and the EC believes the country’s experience holds important lessons, key among which is that success in promoting women depends on a mixture of regulatory and self-regulatory measures such as women’s leadership programmes.

The Norwegian business confederation’s ‘female future’ programme helps companies to recruit and train women leaders, and the EC believes that companies across the EU could follow that example to prepare and train women in management positions for board-level positions.

“Recruiting and developing women isn’t only a moral imperative,” says Regina Eckhart of the Center for Creative Leadership, a non-profit organisation dedicated to leadership education and research. “For the kind of goals that companies want to attain, they need women. Particularly if your buyers or consumers are female, then you need a certain representation of women who are similar to the buyers, because you get more customer-focused services and products that way.”

At a company level, the CCL  believes there are four steps to take to increase the number of women in senior positions. The first is to promote women’s networks. The firm’s research shows that effective leaders are those who can build and leverage high-quality relationships and networks. Good leaders understand others at work and have a good sense of what is going on around them, says the CCL and they use their influence to obtain the resources they and their teams need to function effectively.

But women leaders often don’t have the same strength or reach of networks as their male counterparts do. This is where development can help: building women’s networks across functions and levels can help women become effective leaders and support organisational goals.

“As a starting point, women can set up career advisory boards featuring a diversity of relationships inside and outside the company, with people that can give them advice, or challenges, or support for their own career,” says Eckhart. “They can provide access to information, hand-holding, role-modelling or affirmation, so that women can expand their capabilities and capacities.”

The CCL’s advice is to make career advisory boards as diverse as possible and to include on them not only typically powerful men but also powerful women and people from very different backgrounds.

“It’s not easy for junior women to simply network with men who are more senior,” continues Eckhart, “because there are some group dynamics that militate against women networking with those in more powerful positions. For instance, often men and women’s life circumstances are very different, so the things that make you bond informally with someone who’s junior – that you have something in common, or that you see something of yourself in them, for instance – are less likely to take place.

“The most striking difference, however, is primary childcare responsibilities. Most childcare in Europe still devolves to women and having roles that are gender-specific actually makes it more difficult for women to network than it is even for someone of a different ethnicity or a different religion.”

The second step recommended by the CCL is to set up a formal mentorship programme. Pairing women who have leadership potential with mentors, both male and female, who work in other areas of the company, can help them raise their visibility, build networks and refine their leadership skills. Research by CCL and other organisations has shown that learning from other people, especially role models and mentors, is the second most powerful source of development and learning.

However, because senior women in the workplace are in a minority, they often lack role models and mentors, and are sometimes hesitant to actively seek them out. Including male mentors in the scheme has the added benefit of promoting awareness among male leaders, who can open doors they did not realise were closed to female colleagues.

Companies can go about setting up mentoring programmes in various ways, says Eckhart. “If they are set up well they need a lot of support,” she says, “because you need somebody who monitors the quality of each relationship and helps the mentor as well as the mentee if things aren’t working out. Simply setting up the programme isn’t enough – it needs ongoing support from a trusted confidant inside the company.”

CCL trains both mentors and mentees in what needs to be discussed in the relationship, and works on getting the contracting right, outlining the responsibilities on both sides and sensitising people to what kind of learning can be gained from a mentoring relationship.

“Mentees often don’t ask for help,” says Eckhart. “It’s not in our societal stereotype. We’re educated to be self-sufficient and to take help when it’s offered, but not to ask for it. And for mentees in general, there’s a certain amount of insecurity about what might be allowed in a mentoring relationship, and about how to deal with sensitive issues. Our training often liberates them to say: ‘I’ll ask my mentor about that’.”

The third step that companies can take is to develop a career management structure that promotes women’s self-awareness and confidence, based on constructive feedback. Women’s exclusion from the ‘inner circle’ of influence in the workplace is often reinforced by a lack of self-confidence and the perceived need to prove themselves first, rather than believing in their own potential.

“Most women don’t talk about it but it is totally common to think we’re insufficient and to strive for a lot of external recognition,” says Eckhart.

“We train women to understand that what they’re doing is good and to have self-belief and self-confidence, and that not everything you’re doing needs to be recognised from the outside. Very often women are our own hardest critics.”

The fourth step that can aid women at work is to promote a better work-life balance. For instance, women remain overwhelmingly the primary caregivers for children and their  role within the family is often seen both by companies and women themselves as an obstacle to their career development. However, CCL research shows – perhaps somewhat surprisingly – that managers who are committed to their parenting responsibilities are seen as better leaders by their bosses.

“The crucial thing is that it’s not leaders who have children, it’s leaders who are committed to that role, who take it seriously that they have children,” says Eckhart.

“If you’re committed to your parenting, there’s a positive spillover. Family life is about constant negotiation and finding a balance between your own goals and the goals of the people around you; it’s about sensing and reading other people in your environment and very often you have to negotiate in a non-verbal way, especially with kids; you are constantly in a situation where you have to manage potential conflicts in a way in which the family overall is preserved. These skills are directly relevant to effective performance as a senior workplace manager.”

Organisations that are serious about retaining women and getting the most from them need to take steps to counter the prejudice that family and career cannot be combined, says the CCL, and the long hours culture is particularly detrimental. “We tell organisations that asking people to pull a 10 or 12 hour day isn’t a smart move,” says Eckhart. “ We know from physiological data and stress management data that you’re not more efficient if you work 10-12 hours than if you work 7-8 hours in a concentrated fashion.”

Not only is it not useful or sustainable for companies to ask people do to that, she says, when they do so, they lose the talent that won’t comply with that kind of pace.

“We link it back to trust,” she says. “If you trust your employees to do their job well, you need to allow them autonomy over how they achieve their results. If you can create a culture where people are held accountable for the results they achieve and not the time they spend doing so, you’re going to have much happier and more productive people.”



About the Center for Creative Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership  was founded in 1970. It helps clients worldwide, many of them Fortune 100 companies, to cultivate creative leadership through an array of programmes, products and other services. It provides whole-organisation initiatives, small workshops and speakers. A range of publications can also be ordered from its website, CCL’s headquarters are in Greensboro, US, with offices in Colorado Springs; San Diego; Brussels; Moscow; Singapore; Pune, India and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Its work is supported by 500 faculty members and staff.