How do we get to – “Someday, someone will shatter the Glass Ceiling”

Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey, Director, The Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (ACLW)

In her concession speech on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said, “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling … but someday, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now[i].”

Her hopeful words that “..someday, someone will” echo globally the sentiments of many who want to see a woman shatter the “highest glass ceiling” in America, the leader of the free world.

  • What might it take for this to happen?
  • A stronger woman than Hillary to face what was a bruising and divisive campaign?
  • A more outspoken woman than Hillary?
  • A more experienced woman than Hillary?
  • A woman with more potential than Hillary?

I think not as Hillary Clinton exemplified the highest level of all of these attributes. She demonstrated in her campaign for presidency an unprecedented level of competency, strength, leadership and potential as she faced Donald Trump. Moreover, as the New York Times[ii] highlighted, Hillary’s forty plus years in public life, “often as the first or only woman in the arena” with a record of “incremental successes” shows a “determined leader intent on creating opportunity for struggling Americans at a time of economic upheaval and on ensuring that the United States remains a force for good in an often brutal world.”

The thinking that we need a better, more stronger woman parallels the thinking that it is the woman who needs ‘fixing’ and as such fails to recognise the culture and the system that unjustly and unfairly keeps women out but lets in men who lack the necessary experience, credentials and potential for the job. That Trump was elected on a platform of racism, xenophobia, sexism[iii] and nationalism fails not only any system of Merit for the role of the U.S. Presidency, but also defies the necessary attribute that underlines all roles, respect for all human beings.

In a world where women continue to face the dual burden of paid work and unpaid care, where gender pay gaps favour men in many sectors, where parental leave and flexible working policies are weak or do not exist, where women are vulnerable to abuse and where two-thirds of global poverty is concentrated in girls and women[iv] what it would take for a woman to shatter glass ceilings and gain the highest job in any context has more to do with not fixing the woman, but fixing the system by developing a pervasive culture that does not disadvantage a woman from being in a leadership role because of her gender; that does not apply different standards and expectations for women and men in a way that is unfair to women and that determines the fitness of the candidate based on their performance and their ability to perform a job, not because of their gender.  

When a nation works towards and manifests principles of gender equality consistently and in all of its institutions, then we would expect that a woman would have an equal and fair chance at taking the highest office as a man.

To make such a day come sooner than later, it is clear that we need to as Hillary reminded, “Never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.[v]” But more importantly, we all need to work together to change the cultural norms in our workplaces, institutions and homes that perpetuate discrimination based on gender.  We need to relentlessly and consistently challenge gender inequalities as they manifest themselves in different facets.

Hillary Clinton’s defeat is not a sign that a woman cannot break the highest glass ceiling. It is a sign that gender discrimination is entrenched in the U.S. and is predominantly held as a value deemed worthy of deciding that the highest office is only the domain of a man regardless of his background, principles he espouses, divisive policies and character.   

Given that in Australia, where women make up only 15.4 per cent of chief executive officer or head of business positions[vi] who take home 29 per cent less than their male counterparts and where the average pay gap between men and women has only advanced 1.3 per cent over 10 years when it was 14.9%[vii] and that sex discrimination continues to be the single largest factor contributing to the gender pay gap[viii], it is evident that gender discrimination is entrenched in our systems and structures too.

A recent petition[ix] expressing concerns against the Australian Government’s proposed changes to the paid parental leave scheme drew over 600 signatories including 20 women’s organisations with many comments citing concerns about Australia going “backwards” and that the “…Government has a shared responsibility for PPL” and that “To suggest that women are ‘double dipping’ completely misrepresents the nature and design of the scheme. Enterprise agreements top-up the minimum entitlements provided by Government to provide access to additional paid leave. Our country is finally getting on the front foot to valuing women’s participation in the workplace and recognising the importance of supporting women through the first few months of motherhood. The proposed changes are a backward step. Australia needs to embrace progressive and innovative policies and this is not one of them.”










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