The glass ceiling in Australian workplaces

As Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman in U.S. history to win the nomination of a major political party, it’s worth asking where is the glass ceiling?

In June this year, Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win the nomination of a major political party, putting, in her words, “the biggest crack in the glass ceiling yet”. If she goes on to become President, she will join Theresa May and Angela Merkel as three female leaders of the G8.

In the same month as the Democratic National Convention, I met several young women who told me the glass ceiling no longer existed, as they had never experienced gender discrimination at work.

The perception that the glass ceiling is finally smashed is perhaps understandable when we see Clinton, May and Merkel leading from the front. But the assertion that the glass ceiling no longer exists in Australian workplaces is, sadly, misguided.

As CEO of a business that delivers women’s leadership programs in some of the country’s largest organisations, my team and I have first-hand knowledge of what is REALLY going on in Australian workplaces. Even in organisations led by enlightened CEOs, we see the following in almost every business we work in:

–   A form of unintentional discrimination that we call ‘cotton-wooling’, involving (usually) older male managers ‘looking after’ younger female employees by keeping them from stretch opportunities that would cause them discomfort and potential failure. This is despite the fact that the managers reflect on their own multiple failures as key to their leadership success.

–   Men inviting their male colleagues out to socialise, ignoring the women in their team.

–   Inappropriate language used in the workplace, often involving sexual references.

–   An obviously leaky talent pipeline, where approximately equal percentages of women at frontline levels translate into dramatically reduced numbers of female leaders. This is often accompanied by a soft glass ceiling: a particular level in the organisation where women seem to drop off like flies. This leads to a lack of female role models at leadership level and, consequentially, a reduced ability for women to envision themselves as leaders of the organisation.

–   A leadership team that, even when genders are equally represented, allows much more space for men to talk and be heard than women. Women are often talked over, shut down and have their ideas appropriated by male colleagues who end up receiving the credit.

We understand why some young women deny the existence of a glass ceiling in Australian workplaces. They have simply not seen it yet. It is often only when women step into leadership roles that they become aware of the biases they face when it comes to stepping up, speaking up and leading.

As leaders in your own organisations, we suggest the following actions:

  1. Have the conversations about gender bias in a safe space
  2. Call out colleagues who interrupt and appropriate others’ ideas
  3. Make sure you are tapping both women and men on the shoulder for stretch opportunities
  4. Invest in a women’s leadership program: research shows that it generates a 3:1 return on investment when compared with mixed gender programs.

There is, of course, room for optimism. We are seeing many innovative gender diversity initiatives bear fruit for Australian organisations. But we know from first-hand experience: we have a long way to go until the glass ceiling is finally cracked.

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As published by CEO Magazine, 29 August 2016.

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