September 15th, 2011 | 5:00 am

Cracking the UK’s £15 Billion Glass Ceiling

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iStock_000017129414XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A recent report out of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has revealed that at the current rate of advancement, it will take 70 years before gender parity is reached in the boardrooms of the FTSE 100 – and that’s just parity by numbers. It doesn’t even measure the rate of advancement when it comes to pay, power, or responsibilities.

The report, Sex and Power 2011, analyzed the UK’s top 26,000 positions across business, government, media, the arts, and the public sector. According to the Commission, there are about 5,400 ‘missing’ women from influential positions in Britain.

This amounts to “the squandering of talent,” says the report. It continues, “We are losing out on what women can contribute, with the Women and Work Commission estimating that unlocking women’s talent in the workplace could be worth £15 billion or more.”

This glass ceiling is an expensive one – and the report provides a few key reasons it’s still in place. Here’s why.

Work/Life Challenges

According to Sex and Power 2011, while every sector in the UK has a long way to go before gender parity is reached in the top ranks, some sectors are doing better than others, namely the public and voluntary sectors. In fact, in the voluntary field, the proportion of chief executives is almost balanced.

The reason that so many more women inhabit decision making roles in these fields, according to the Commission, is that these sectors provide a significantly better opportunity for work/life fit. The study explains:

“Women in the public sector are more likely than those in the private sector to consider having or enlarging a family because of the relative job security, more flexible working hours and more generous family-friendly policies that tend to be available there, making it increasingly attractive to women who want a balance between their work and home lives.”

Additionally, the report points out, women’s participation on boards of directors in the UK lags behind much of Western Europe, as well as the US. It says one main reason for this is corporate cultures in the UK which prize long hours, and because domestic responsibilities tend to be unequally divided between genders, “women’s potential to find the time and energy these top posts demand” is limited.

As a result, the culture is particularly tough on working mothers, and, in fact, many women at the top either don’t have children or they are the primary breadwinners for their family.

The study says, “Research with some of the female managing directors of London’s top investment banks has found that nearly half were childless, and of those who did have children, a quarter had a partner who assumed the role of primary carer.”

The report also points out that the British government “pours a fortune into educating girls.”

These girls turn into ambitious young women, it continues.

“In their twenties they level peg with men and we would expect them to enter the management ranks at the same rate as men. However, several years down the track a different picture emerges – one where many have disappeared from the paid workforce or remain trapped in the ‘marzipan layer’ below senior management, leaving the higher ranks to be dominated by men.”

But then: tragedy. Disillusionment sets in – and that, according to the Commission, is what’s really keeping women from the top.

Ignoring Key Problems?

But that disillusionment has to come from somewhere, and likely work/life issues aren’t the only things keeping women down.

The report identifies inflexible workplace cultures and an unequal division of labor as primary reasons for a lack of women in leadership. But it does little to call out other issues that keep women out of the top segment of leadership – like societal biases toward male leaders. Recognizing you have a problem is the first step toward fixing it, and a cultural preference for men in leadership roles is one that shouldn’t go ignored.

The report does a service to the UK in providing hard numbers to point out the slow progress of women in leadership, and its cost – but it skirts the issues when it comes to bias and discrimination.

It does suggest that one key way to get more women into decision making roles is to highlight female role models who are already there. It says:

“As a nation, we cannot afford to waste the talent available to run our national institutions. As well as the moral argument for gender equality in positions of power and influence, women’s equal participation in public, political and cultural institutions can play a pivotal role in the advancement of women.”

Presenting women as role models for the next generation of leaders is indeed a key way to get more women to the top and women certainly have a role to play in getting there. But without recognizing that men have to do their part, and that society must change as well, the UK’s pricey glass ceiling isn’t going anywhere.

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