Shattering the Glass Ceiling

In 1986, the concept of the glass ceiling was used to explain why women, despite achieving certain levels of success in industry and business are prevented from reaching the most senior levels of management due to an invisible barrier that is almost impossible to breach. 

Twenty years later, despite research, evidence and an array of proactive gender policies for equality and equity, there are still concerns about the relative absence of women in higher management ranks. 

Surely, the time for considering quotas for equal representation of women on boards has come. 

The issue of quotas, however, must be considered in a broader context of not just getting more women into boards but getting more women into leadership positions through each stage of their career progression. 

The glass ceiling is prevalent not just at the highest points of organisations, but on each level of the career labyrinth. 

With numbers of women in Australia decreasing in line executive positions from 7.5 per cent in 2006 to 5.9 per cent in 2008, the pool of potential candidates for board positions needs to be addressed at every rung of the ladder so that women can strategically negotiate their stages of career engagement and development. 

Examining access to management positions, The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the 2002 EEO data showed that organisations with a high proportion of women in executive management have a high proportion of women in their respective recruiting pools (field management and white collar jobs at headquarters). 

The Commission concluded that successful elimination of glass ceilings requires not just an effective enforcement strategy but the involvement of employers, employees and others in identifying and reducing attitudinal and other forms of organisational barriers encountered by minorities and women in advancing to higher level management positions in different workplace settings. 

To meet targets at pivotal leadership points in an organisation, there needs to be provision for a range of measures for women, including access to challenging career opportunities, mentoring, leadership training, negotiating and networking, work/life balance and child care. 

These initiatives, taking into account the dual role women have as carers and workers, need to be accessible by women from early on in their careers to contribute to subsequent stages of career development, giving them the opportunity to be in the feeder position for a board position. 

Whilst voluntary or legislative targets outlined by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick move the issue forward, policies need to address the recognition of merit of women at senior management levels who have been side stepped for board positions AND also the development of merit through women’s career cycles. 

This approach ensures equity and equality for all women. Moreover, it is this context that reduces some of the arguments circling the issue of quotas such as: quotas only achieve putting in women to make up the numbers; quotas spoil the chances of other women when the woman does not perform well; there is a shortage of suitable women. 

As quotas shatter the glass ceiling for women who have merit but have been sidestepped, strategies that are geared to develop merit for those women further down the line will provide a fail-proof system that nurtures talent and leadership.

Shattering the Glass Ceiling by Diann Rodgers-Healey Published 30 October 2009, Unleashed, ABC.  (Unleashed presents diverse and robust opinion about politics, society, belief and behaviour.)

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