HCR Law Events

27 September 2022

Breaking through the glass ceiling – from policy to practice

As part of our 10th year in Hereford, HCR has partnered with the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce in order to sponsor their Women’s Business Forum. On 7 September 2022, I had the privilege of speaking to over 100 of the two counties’ best business brains – all bar one of them, female – at the Women’s Business Conference held at the stunning Crumplebury.

With so many incredible women in one room, sharing ideas, expertise, experience and excellent food, it was difficult to imagine that the glass ceiling still exists – after all, as of February 2022, 39% of directors of FTSE100 companies were women. When we consider, however, that only eight of those companies have women in their most senior role – CEO – and that, for every £1 earned by a man in the UK, a woman earns on average 84.6 pence, it is clear that while we have come a long way since the implementation of key legislation regarding equality for women in the workplace, the business world still has some work to do when it comes to gender equality.

But what is the glass ceiling, why does it exist and what can employers do to help women break through that invisible barrier? With study after study showing that businesses with greater numbers of women in senior roles consistently outperform their less diverse competitors when it comes to profitability, employee engagement, customer confidence and risk management, to name just a few KPI’s, the case for removing the glass ceiling in your business is clear!

The glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent the invisible and often unacknowledged barriers faced by a particular demographic, most notably women, which prevent them from advancing beyond a certain level in their careers.

The reasons why the glass ceiling exists are numerous and nuanced and far beyond the bravery of a mere employment lawyer like me to tackle in a few hundred words. More important, however, than debating the reasons for the glass ceiling is what employers can do, from a practical perspective, to support the advancement of women and to promote gender equality within their organisations.

Here are a few of my top tips:

  • Transparency and formalisation

In the absence of clear systems, decisions about key matters such as pay, promotions and more are likely to be made by processes which disadvantage women. These include via personal and professional networks or in ways which are impacted by bias – with those already at the top-table championing those who, whether consciously or unconsciously, are like themselves.

When we combine that with the “salary ask gap” – the idea that men are more likely to ask for higher pay than women on entry and on promotion, and the fact that evidence suggests that women are less likely to apply for a job or promotion unless they can prove they meet 100% of the selection criteria – it is easy to see why formal and transparent policies will help women progress. For example, clearly defined job descriptions and selection criteria, detailed career pathways which show the criteria considered when looking at eligibility for promotion and transparent pay scales, all help.

  • Delivery over presenteeism

Since the first lockdown in March 2020, almost all businesses have had to get to grips with the concept that work, for the majority, is now a ‘thing’, not a ‘place’. That being said, there is still a culture in many businesses of valuing presenteeism – showing up for work but not being productive – over delivery and a tendency towards long working hours as a demonstration of commitment.

When you factor in the “second shift” – unpaid work undertaken outside of office hours comprising of domestic tasks and caring responsibilities – and the fact that, on average, this second shift is 26 hours per week for women compared to 16 hours per week for men (a difference of 60%) – again, it is easy to see why women lose out when bums on seats is used as the measure of commitment and loyalty.

To truly benefit from gender diversity, businesses should think carefully about not only their KPIs and deliverables, but also about their working norms and how they view employees and their prospects for progression in light of them. Flexible and part-time work are important factors which help women to maintain their position in the workplace. However, alternative working time policies without cultural change risk worsening gender inequality due to the negative effect that alternative working patterns have on career progression where part-time and flexible working are seen as a lack of commitment.

As all good employment lawyers will advise, having the policy is almost meaningless in the absence of good practice to underpin it. Ultimately, it is how you implement a policy that matters. Organisations wanting to benefit from diversity of all kinds, but particularly when it comes to gender, need to show ongoing top-down commitment to supporting part-time and a-typical workers. That might include having senior leaders who talk openly about balancing work and family life, or who work part-time or in alternative ways themselves, scheduling meetings at different times of day, adjusting workloads to truly accommodate part-time or flexible work and upskilling line managers to understand, support and champion all types of working patterns.

  • Flexibility

Again, since the pandemic, words like ‘flexibility’, ‘balance’ and ‘wellbeing’ have become buzzwords and studies show that the majority of employees, not just women, now value flexibility in their role. This is particularly true in terms of where people  work, which is often rated as highly as salary. In fact, as of May 2022, one in four workers in the UK stated their intention to work permanently in a hybrid way, with only 11% of workers saying that they planned to work from the office full-time.

However, flexibility of the kind which supports diversity in the workplace needs to encompass more than just where work is done but also when and how that work can be done. Clearly, there are elements of most roles which, for various reasons, must be done in a certain way. That said, empowering employees to work in ways that suit them and in a way that allows them to balance (there’s that word again) the many other commitments the modern world places upon people not only allows women in particular to flourish, but also allows employers to gain a competitive advantage when it comes to attracting and retaining talent in the post-pandemic age.

  • Improving networks

Research has consistently shown that networks play a key part in determining career advancement. That same research consistently shows that women often have a lack of access, or reduced access when compared to their male counterparts, to such networks for a range of complex reasons.

We are all familiar with the phrase “it’s not what you know but who you know.” Unfortunately, access to “who” might be via a male dominated network – particularly in certain industries. Women can also be excluded (often inadvertently) as a result of the nature or location of networking opportunities. For example, if they are centred around sporting activities or held in the evening or on set days of the week which might clash with caring responsibilities or undermine alternative working patterns and non-working days.

Limited access to networks is particularly problematic for knowledge workers – generally those in professional services, like lawyers, accountants, financial and business advisers and others – on the basis that employers looking to progress employees within those roles often look to promote “someone they can trust”, with such trust often being established away from the office, at events and social occasions or as a result of having connections in common.

To improve access to networks, businesses should think creatively about their networking events and social calendars and diversify their events. Holding a range of events, at different times of day, in different locations and centred around a variety of interests are simple changes which organisations can make to open up networks in order to make them accessible to all talent.

  • Role modelling

This one is simple – you can’t be what you can’t see. Having women in senior leadership roles, who mentor more junior women, even informally, can make a huge difference in helping the next generation smash through the glass ceiling. Equally, having male allies (sorry, another buzzword) in all roles but, particularly senior roles, who champion gender diversity within their own organisations and more widely can help overcome issues like social cloning and unconscious bias.

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About the Author
Rebecca Kirk, Partner, Head of Defence, Security and the Forces Sector and Hereford Office

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