Glass ceiling? Or glass half empty

Have you achieved all of your ambitions? When you look at the senior management in your company, are there as many women at the top as there are men? And the very top job, is it usually held by a woman? It would be no surprise if you answered no to at least one of these questions. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if the answer to all of these questions was no.

A major report into the proportion of women on boards was published in late 2015. The Davies Report examined the approach to increase representation of women on boards in the UK and around the world. The UK is doing better than it used to. Appointments of women at board level to FTSE 100 companies have reached a new high at over a quarter: now 26 per cent are women. Look down a level, and the FTSE 250 has a proportion of just under 20 per cent.

The report’s author, Lord Davies, a former banker in his sixties, is delighted at this progress. New targets are being set for a third of directors to be women by 2020. The last time we looked women made up more than 50 per cent of the population. The proportion of women on boards is evidently rising. Yet most of the women on boards in the statistics are in non-executive, part-time positions. There are only 26 executive women directors on FTSE 100 boards – that’s just 9.6 per cent. This does not indicate a pipeline for executive women on boards. Nor does it show that there is a level playing field for women to get promoted, and to achieve the careers that they deserve.

Women in work in the UK – and there are 14.5 million of them – are still not getting the same opportunities to reach the top as men. Outside the UK, the Davies Report shows a similar picture. Norway, where a quota system has been adopted, has the most women on boards, at 35 per cent. Denmark and Germany have just over one-fifth. Then numbers dwindle. The USA has 16.9 per cent, Australia 16.2 per cent, Ireland 12.7 per cent and India 12.1 per cent. Again, let us remind ourselves, these are in countries where women have always made up at least half of the population.

Not everyone in work wants to be managing director or CEO. And not every woman wants to be managing director, CEO or in any senior role. But if they do want to, then they should have the same chance to do so as men. With such large proportions of women in the workforce overall, so many millions, it is really difficult to believe that so many of them lack the ambition or ability to reach senior levels of management.

Women are not a minority in any respect, apart from in the boardroom. What is really going on, and, more to the point, what can we do about it? There is a secret that no one wants to admit. Thousands of words have been written, numerous courses have been run. In workplaces across the world the recurring questions of ‘Why did that happen?’, ‘Is it just me?’ and ‘Does that seem fair?’ play in the minds of women of all ages and roles. The fact is that there isn’t any fairness in the way that the workplace functions for women, and women need tips, tactics and strategies that will help you get the career they deserve. Not necessarily to get to the top of organisations – because lots of women don’t see that as the path they want to follow. It is about getting you a career that you enjoy, with the seniority you deserve, and in which your contribution is recognised. We also know that there are men in the workplace who want the tools to make this contribution possible. They see the talent pool around them, and they see the individuals that can help the organisation thrive. Their difficulty is in being able to understand what is going on and how they can contribute to making it better, and in ensuring that they are part of making long-lasting changes that create permanent shifts in the workplace.

The workplace isn’t the only part of society where women have failed to play a full part. In the UK, women have been able to stand for Parliament since 1918. It was only in 1997 that the number of female MPs reached double figures. To date there have only ever, in total, been 450 women MPs, a figure below the number of men elected in 2015 alone (459). Worldwide, there are only forty-four countries where the representation of women stands at 30 per cent or more.

In Germany, a country led by one of the world’s most powerful women, the percentage of female representation is 31 per cent. So it isn’t just your problem. In the 1980s, there was a good deal of talk about the glass ceiling and the fact that it was now shattered. There was a woman prime minister in the UK. Equality for women in the workforce was a legal fact, ever since the gender equality act in 1970. There were a few women bosses around, and there were sure to be more of them as they came through the system. Although most bosses were middle-aged men in suits, it was clear that the future for women bosses was bright. A new dawn was on the way, a future where you would expect half of the management of every company to be women, and that every other CEO would occasionally wear a skirt to work.

But has the equality perceived in the 1980s materialised and evolved since then? You be the judge. My opinion is that we still are a long way from that.