The Real Glass Ceiling Starts At 30

Posted by on Mar 11, 2012

Fascinating piece by Kate Walsh published in the UK’s Sunday Times today:

Glass ceiling starts at 30

Efforts to get more women on to boards must start at management level, writes Kate Walsh

Good girls don’t ask. This mantra, drummed into schoolgirls everywhere, stopped Karen Hubbard, 48, applying for the job that changed her life. She had been working for BP in her native Australia for more than a decade when a big project came up. She didn’t dare put herself forward despite being more than capable.

Frustrated by her reticence, her boss summoned Hubbard to Melbourne where he offered her the role. She accepted, and then told him her other good news: she was expecting her second child.

“But I wouldn’t have given you the job if I’d have known that,” he spluttered. It was too late to retract, and Hubbard took on the task of rolling out BP’s retail operation across Australia. It was a huge success.

Today, she is an executive director on the main board of Asda, the second-biggest supermarket chain in Britain, where she is in charge of its 542 stores.

Had that conversation in Australia taken a different turn, her career path might have been quite different. Hubbard was fortunate, but thousands of other women aren’t.

Like her, they are well educated, they have completed the graduate schemes and the training, but they hit a glass ceiling in their early thirties — just as their male peers’ careers are taking off. This ceiling is nowhere near the top — it’s only about halfway up the corporate ladder — and it means men dominate from mid-management to the board.

For the past year, politicians and businesses have focused on getting women into top board positions. The pressure is working: female representation on FTSE 100 main boards rose to 15.4% last year and about a quarter of companies have set ambitious targets to get more women to the top.

These companies were congratulating themselves on International Women’s Day last Thursday. They tell themselves that, although the problem hasn’t been solved, they are making good progress. But are they? Not if you believe the focus on increasing female representation on main boards is misguided.

The real problem exists one step down — at management level. This is the waiting room for the next generation of leaders and women are conspicuous by their absence. Research from Korn Ferry Whitehead Mann, the headhunter, found that only 15% of management board roles in the FTSE 100 are held by women. That’s only 163 of 1,058 jobs.

Yet, unlike with the main boards, there is no pressure for this to be increased. In fact, since Lord Davies, the former banker and trade minister, kicked off his mission to get more women in the boardroom, the number at the management level — the pipeline — has shrunk more than 2%. For the politicians and companies, this is a far tougher challenge, because they can’t massage the numbers of women with non-executive appointments.

“The female talent pipeline is a burning issue,” said Liz Bingham, a partner at Ernst & Young, the professional services firm. “There is a risk that we are missing entire generations of female talent that have been largely ignored by organisational inertia and lack of understanding of the issues facing women in the workplace.”

A small number of businesses are taking steps to address this. Four in the FTSE 100 — Anglo American, Aviva, Diageo and Smith & Nephew — have set targets to increase the number of women on the management board by 2015. But there’s a lot that women can do — and have to do — for themselves. Speaking up is a good way to start.

Maureen Milligan, 51, runs one of the biggest B&Q stores in the country, at Trafford Park in Manchester. Just 10% of the DIY chain’s managers are female, which may seem low, but four years ago the figure was zero.

Milligan was the first woman to manage a B&Q superstore, but her career could easily have stalled 25 years ago. “I had my son at 26 and I didn’t want to give up my career,” she said. “I went to my manager and said, ‘I’m a good worker, I want a career at B&Q’, and they let me work around my son for the first few years. I went back full-time when he was at school.”

While Milligan will never be chief executive of B&Q, she has made it to the top rung of management in a male-dominated sector. Her tactics were simple: she showed confidence in herself by spelling out exactly what she wanted . . . just like her male counterparts.

“Women have to make their desires known,” said Lady Judge, chairwoman of the Pension Protection Fund. “Men apply for jobs whether they’re qualified or not but a woman will apply only when she’s over-qualified.”

Kate Grussing, founder of Sapphire Partners, the recruiter, sees this almost every day. “It’s shocking. You ask a woman for her CV and it will be with you in a few days because it’s not up to date. You ask a man and he will hand it to you on a memory stick.”

She added that many competent women — who have excelled at school and sailed through graduate schemes — have a professional time-out in their early thirties.

It’s not that they suddenly lose interest in their careers. Rather, parenthood puts them at risk of getting stuck in the same position and pay bracket. This is largely because the big company metrics that dictate promotions conspire against a woman with a young family.

Carla Stent, chief operating officer at Virgin, was formerly chief administrative officer of Barclays’ global retail bank. “At Barclays we identified this as a huge problem. We were losing women between the ages of 25 and 35 in droves. They were coming back after maternity but then leaving a year or two later.”

Stent realised that Barclays’ requirements for more senior roles, such as international experience, were holding back these women. Once that issue was addressed, retention improved and the bank’s pipeline of senior women swelled.

Another bank has an accelerated development programme for women of high potential, which gets them further along their career paths before they have children.

Changing hiring policies is fairly easy but changing attitudes isn’t. People tend to recruit in their own image — in management consultancy circles this is known as “unconscious bias”. So, if you’re a white, middle-class man you will hire another white, middle- class man.

Tony Vardy, managing director of Korn Ferry UK, said: “The number of times you hear top executives saying. ‘Oh, he reminds me of myself as a younger man.’ These things perpetuate the gender imbalance.”

Responsible companies are trying to address this by monitoring who is hiring whom. There are also moves to create mentoring and sponsor schemes that can help talented women move up the ranks.

They can help themselves by getting even more qualifications. According to one senior female executive, an MBA is evidence that you’re committed if you’re a woman, whereas for a man it’s a commodity.

Women shouldn’t have to prove that they want to work. They shouldn’t have to spend £20,000 on an MBA just for a seat at the table — one they’ve already earned. Until these suspicions about women’s commitment as well as their capabilities are tempered, the corporate world’s unconscious bias will never go away.