Time to smash the glass ceiling that still faces women at work

by Ann McKechin

Workplace equality is currently a hot topic among UK and EU legislators. In Europe, Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, recently had plans for a 40% female quota on EU listed company boards quashed. Revised proposals released today look to soften down the original draft legislation. In Westminster, my colleagues and I on the business, innovation and skills select committee are now gathering evidence for a new inquiry: women in the workplace. The results so far have been both illuminating and alarming.

On a positive note, the evidence suggests that one year on from Lord Davies’s report Women on Boards, women at the top of British businesses are finally getting a seat at the table. The number of female board members in FTSE 100 companies has increased from 12% in 2010 to 17.3% in 2012, whilst the number with no women on the board dropped to eleven.

But there is still work to be done. The majority of women being appointed to board level positions at public companies are non-executive directors, who lack the power and influence that executive office brings. Despite the number of FTSE 100 companies with more than one woman on the board increasing to fifty since Lord Davies recommended a voluntary code of conduct for chairmen to follow, there remain fifty companies with only a single female board member. Change is a slow process, however, and the news that the corporate gender balance is gradually tilting towards equality can only be a good thing.

“Breaking the glass ceiling” and progressing to the top of the corporate ladder is far removed from the concerns of the vast majority of working women in the UK. Much of the written evidence submitted to the committee relates to the barriers stopping women across the pay levels returning to work after having children, from lack of flexibility in working hours to childcare costs which rank as the most expensive in the developed world. Gingerbread, a charity championing the rights of single parents, noted in their evidence that too much part-time work is concentrated in low-paid, low-skilled jobs.

Unless we ensure that talented women can work part-time and flexibly in skilled positions, there won’t be nearly enough talented women in the pipeline ready to take on senior management positions in the future. Inequality will be baked-in for another generation.

The committee will also hear evidence into why so few women enter the highly skilled and well-paid industries open to STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) graduates. The figures are shocking. Scotland, for example, boasts 56,000 female STEM graduates of working age, but only 27% use their qualifications to work in STEM occupations, compared with 52% of men. Similar ratios are repeated across the UK. My fellow committee members and I aim to question the true nature of the obstacles preventing women entering the pipeline in science and engineering to rewarding and well-paid jobs.

This recession has claimed many victims. Men and women, young and old, are suffering from job losses, lack of opportunities and falling living standards. But the economic crisis has not been gender-neutral. As the economy has shed jobs over the past four years of crisis and contraction, women face steep challenges in returning to a changed workplace. Whether the government’s myopic embrace of labour market deregulation in the guise of “cutting red tape” will have any effect on growth remains to be seen. What is for certain is that it won’t help working women desperate for a measure of security, sympathy and flexibility from their employer in these tough times. Instead, we should be seriously studying the childcare and labour market policies of our Scandinavian neighbours, where women’s participation in the workforce is the best in the developed world and economies are buoyant.

It’s vital that the women in the workplace inquiry gets to hear the views of ordinary women and their real life experiences of these important issues.

I had the opportunity to discuss the inquiry on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour earlier this week, and the response so far has been impressive. The programme hosted a phone-in from listeners with the kind of real life experiences that will give real weight to our recommendations.

One caller told of how bosses advised her that she wasn’t “feminine enough” and that she should stop measuring herself against male colleagues, and should look up to female role models instead. Another complained of the dearth of part-time opportunities for ambitious women transitioning from full-time childcare back into work, leaving research scientists, lawyers and accountants, as she put it, “twiddling their thumbs” at home. One woman recalled her manager inviting her to resign from her senior management position in the engineering industry when it became known that she had recently become engaged. Just the possibility of her having children in the near future signalled the end for her career at the company.

If you have similar experiences of gender inequality and discrimination in work, the committee would like to hear from you. Due to the level of interest in this inquiry, the last date for submission of evidence has been extended to Christmas 2012. Written evidence is welcomed and should be sent to the committee, as an MS Word document, by email to biscommem@parliament.uk. For more information on the inquiry, please visit the business, innovation and skills committee website: http://www.parliament.uk/bis.

Ann McKechin is MP for Glasgow North


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5 Responses to “Time to smash the glass ceiling that still faces women at work”

  1. Good piece. *This* is the true disgrace of sexual inequality, which should be a huge priority for a Labour government. Not obsessing about percentage quotas within Labour Party structures, something which will change very little.

  2. Only one problem with all this clamouring for women on top. There is nothing to stop a very small number of women being on the boards of a lot of companies and the “equality” to be satisfied. As has happened in Sweden where they put in place such board requirements but where it did nothing at all to actually get women into the board room. There are now women whose profession is now “executive officer” for a large number of companies.

    The reason why there are fewer women in the board room is down to babies. A good proportion of women will take time out to have babies, whilst a tiny proportion of men will do this. So on average the numbers of men and women going forward to the top jobs is already skewed, and just purely on the law of averages more men will go forward than women, even if chosen randomly. And putting in place a law (the solution is always to impose a change via the for those on the left) to allow men to take time off will not change human nature – that it’s normally the women who does the caring and bringing up of children. And even those on the left wouldn’t go as far as putting in place a law to force men to take time out to bring up children – because that would be jumping the shark.

  3. Glad to see this happening. But I hope the focus will not be on the ‘glass ceiling’ as such, but on all levels. The glass ceiling deals with top positions, and therefore with power, so the focus on it is understandable. But to connect with the majority we need to look at the wider picture.
    The issue of ‘careers’ and gender fairness is all zhe more important because women are now so much more qualified than men, so that the waste of competence is increasingly serious. This is what I’ve called the Paula Principle, see http://www.PaulaPrinciple.com

  4. Professional Engineer says:

    I find myself in two minds about this topic, as someone who has worked for several female bosses and whose wife is a senior Director in a global company, with reports throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa, which is a deal more than I have achieved. She reports to a Senior VP who is female and the COO is female.
    1. People in positions of power tend to behave like powerful people. I’ve worked for male and female bosses over many years and found little difference. Senior roles demand certain behaviours as well as skills and such differences as I’ve observed, have not been gender specific. There have now been several female Prime Ministers – India, Israel, Ceylon [as was] UK, New Zealand, Australia among others. It’s not obvious to me that gender influenced their success or failure in the role. Incidentally, I spent a long time in the pubic sector and saw no glass ceiling. Over twenty years, the number of my immediate and senior managers [up to CEO] who were female was about the same as those who were male. This, apparently, is not the norm.
    2. The increasing aversion of school students towards STEM subjects may be more marked in female students; I don’t have the figures to say if that’s true. I do believe that the selection and training of primary school teachers does not emphasise STEM enough. This leads to a general lack of comprehension of careers in science and engineering and may contribute to harmful gender stereotyping in careers ‘advice’ later. The evidence from the female Engineers at the Select Committee tends to support this hypothesis. I back it with my own experience as a STEM Ambassador visiting schools to promote engineering through hands-on activities. The primary school pupils, boys and girls, were invariably equally engaged. It was the teachers who often did not or could not engage.
    3. As a naive apprentice in the 1970s, the first female Engineer I worked with was Egyptian, in the UK on an exchange placement. Despite my surprise at meeting a female Engineer [coming as I did from a family in which all the women worked, but none were 'professional'], she did not regard herself as any kind of pioneer. Her culture saw Engineering as a career that contributed to the growth of the economy and needed the best brains, regardless of gender. There was an echo of this in the Select Committee when Ann McKechin cited Iran [I think] as a place where there were many female Engineers. The male witness who was promoting the view that women were genetically/biologically disposed towards ‘softer’ careers, simply dismissed that by saying he didn’t know about Iran. I’m no geneticist or biologist, but I don’t think Iranian women are a different species.
    4. In a career as a professional Engineer, I have observed a gradual increase in the number of female Engineers, but it is no flood. I speak to very senior people in Engineering organisations who bemoan the lack of suitably qualified Engineers, irrespective of gender. There are some sectors of UK engineering where lack of UK Engineers and legal constraints on employing non-UK or non-EU Engineers, are really squeezing our industry.
    5. This is a fundamental issue and the answer to me is obvious: more people encouraged to keep studying STEM subjects at school and more females exposed to the opportunities in science and engineering. Even if these students go on to have non-STEM careers, they will have a better understanding of its value to society. It starts at school.
    Disclaimer: My son did STEM and became a computer science graduate, happily working in IT; my daughter has yet to decide on her career path, be it work or university that gets her there, but is good at STEM subjects. I try hard not to steer her towards my prejudice.

  5. This is a thoughtful and helpful comment – unlike some of the testimony yesterday (I was sitting behind Mr Moxon when he gave his views that women are genetically incapacitated from working at senior levels in hierarchies; I was directly in line with Ann McKechin’s face, which was an interesting study.) There are three issues: the general lack of STEM students, within that the shortage of women in STEM subjects, and then the question of what happens to women once they’ve finished their studies and try to make a career in the profession – the leaky pipe issue.

    Boosting the first should help the second, as Professional Engineer implies. But the examples from abroad, and especially from countries which are not known for sponsoring gender equality, are particularly telling, and should be made more of.
    Still on segregation, I found Catherine Hakim’s point about Sweden and the public/private divide on female employment a telling one. It brings up the question of ‘choice’: women in Scandinavian countries choose to work in personal services such as health and education, to a greater extent than many other countries. This is a genuine tension – how much do we value occupational desegregation even when women appear to choose the reverse?

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