“Smashing through the glass ceiling”

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As part of his commitment to raising the profile of women during his Shrieval year, Sheriff Andrew Marsden hosted a lunch in November at which senior women of achievement from a range of careers – including entrepreneurs, insurance, retail, the judiciary, journalism, psychology, engineering, HR, accountancy, waste management, local government, communication businesses and charity – reflected on what is required to achieve senior management success.

Author: Consort to Sheriff Marsden, Mrs Marian Gamble

Here is a brief summary of the outputs of the session:

1. Views on the glass ceiling

Some women stated the importance of not letting the ceiling became a barrier to progression.  There is a need to ‘Be positive’.  Some of the phrases used were:

“Ignore the ceiling - the sky is the limit”

“Don’t assume that the ceiling is solid, you may be able to make small cracks and gradually break it”

“There isn’t a god-created ceiling – it’s created by the people around you”

“Push through the glass ceiling – don’t try and smash through it"

“Don’t let it be self-limiting”

“Don’t have limiting beliefs yourself”

“Beware your own assumptions”

“Work hard and earn respect for your ability and professional approach. Merit will win through.”

2. Strategies and tactics for progression

2.1. Question your own attitudes

“Be iron clad about the balance you (and your partner) want to achieve between home, family… and especially your timings!”

“Be transparent and seek transparency from your organisation about job roles etc”

“Remember, there’s a big difference between appearing “pushy” and being ambitious”

“If nothing is going right, turn left”

“You only fail if you give up”

“Beware imposter syndrome”

2.2. Be aware of ‘the politics’ of your organisation

It was clear that some of the women in the room had experienced less discrimination than others – and some said that sometimes they had not even realised they were being treated unfairly because of their sex, until it was pointed out to them.  But some useful pieces of advice relating to this were:

“Be aware that sometimes women are watched more closely and put under the microscope more than their male colleagues”

“Don’t presume it’s the older men [that are unsupportive], very often support was received from older men. However, sometimes younger men may feel threatened”

“Remember men have issues too”

“Check that your organisation is open to change and be open to it yourself”

“Work hard and try to understand your workplace culture so you can deal with issues that arise”

“Remember other women may be jealous of your achievements and undermine you”

“Question unconscious bias: people are pre-positioned to give opportunities to those in their mirror image”

2.3. Join Support Networks

One of the most important support mechanisms, mentioned by virtually all the women, was the need for women only networks.  Of particular importance were those where women were working in similar businesses or professions. These were especially valuable for women new to their career, so they could form links with other women in similar positions, and senior women who had broken through the glass ceiling and who could actively act as role models to mentor and support the less experienced women.

2.4. Get a Mentor

Many of the women attending spoke about the importance of having a mentor or a champion to support them in their development and career progression.  This could be not only a female colleague, but also a male colleague, who would support their training and progression.

“Cultivate relationships with the men you know will support you”

2.5. Help other women to follow you

The importance of helping other women to break through the ceiling, as well as ensuring your own progress, was raised by a number of those present. There was also a need to ‘dig into the data’. It must be recognised that not all women face the same barriers and gender issues must be considered alongside ethnic and socio-economic factors.  There is a need to ensure ‘a critical mass of women’ are present in a business to make things change.  Comments made were:

“Make space for women to come after you”

“Try to understand the view of the world young women have today to enable you to help them achieve”

“Don’t forget to send the lift back down; be sure to pull people up with you”

2.6. Deal with critics

The issues around dealing with criticism – particularly when it appeared that it related to sex rather than ability.  Advice in relation to this included:

“Use humour, where appropriate, to disarm criticism”

“Don’t come across as a feminist”

“Try to understand other people’s points of view”

“Be fair”

3. Future ‘Best Practice” for gender equality companies

One support network for women - Women in Advertising and Communications of London (WACL) - had carried out some research among its members and recommends that the successful businesses of the future will:

‘Work as though the world is watching you’ ie negative workplace cultures and pervasive forms of ‘banter’ must be challenged. 

‘Create the more flexible jobs needed to help balance work and home responsibilities in order to attract talented women’

‘Recognise the biological changes/differences in women, especially the health-related aspects of fertility, miscarriage, birth, and the menopause (which can last for years). They are often overlooked and need to be addressed in the workplace. Potentially create ‘Woman’s Health Heroes’

‘Have a Zero tolerance of sexism’

‘Have more empathetic leadership, which allows others to show their vulnerabilities’ i.e. models of leadership with less ‘masculine’ traits

‘Consider proactive promotion’

‘Set up networks to support women’



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