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Glass Ceiling or Sticky Floor

My career has spanned nearly 20 years, most of which has been spent in predominantly male-dominated industries like defence, construction, mining and resources, Electrotechnology and telecommunications. A comprehensive understanding of both the overall employment status of women and their career prospects in a number of industries have been provided through countless research papers and labour force initiatives. Even after all of these papers and findings, one thing still remains constant: for women in industry, particularly in leadership roles, the infamous ‘glass ceiling’ is still firmly in place, and unless we understand the reasons for this and the barriers preventing us from achieving greatness, the ceiling will never change apart from a few chinks.

What is the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘sticky floor’?

Originally, the ‘glass ceiling’ was a perception or experience of individual women in the world of business, with the first use of the term, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the American Magazine World/Adweek, March 15, 1984: “Women have reached a certain point – I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck.” Essentially, the ‘glass ceiling’ is the situation where gender pay gaps are wider at the top of the wage distribution. The term analyses inequality between men and women in the workplace, to describe a barrier to further advancement once women have attained a certain level.

In contrast, the ‘sticky floor’ can be viewed as the opposite scenario of the ‘glass ceiling’, when the gaps widen at the bottom of the wage distribution. It is described as a situation arising where otherwise identical men and women might be appointed to the same pay scale or rank, but the women are appointed at the bottom and men further up the scale. The term ‘sticky floor’ was coined in 1992 by Catherine Berheide in a report for the Centre for Women in Government. Catherine Berheide was subsequently interviewed in 1993 by Laabs where she stated, “most women should be so lucky to have the glass ceiling as their problem. Many [women are] mired in …. the sticky floor.”

After numerous entities certified that the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘sticky floor’ were real, numerous initiatives, Acts, regulations and laws were introduced globally to combat the issue.

What has been done to combat the issue?

Despite our best intentions, gender equity is constantly being de-railed by a range of largely cultural factors. Initiatives don’t work unless organisations also address: resistance to change, ingrained organisational and cultural beliefs, unconscious bias, societal norms – and sometimes sheer ignorance. Since the 1970s, considerable social and legislative support has developed to assist the progress of women. However, while there has been improvement in some areas, women are still not reaching the top in increasing numbers or overcoming their occupational segregation in the workforce.

Progress to date to improve the status of employment of women in industry has been slow. I must admit, I tire from having to constantly battle to pry my feet from the sticky floor of workplace inequality. Every day I am reminded that women in full-time employment are, on average, paid less in the dollar than men now than they were ten years ago and only one in five board members in Australia are women! We are definitely in the minority when it comes to c-suite positions and the unconscious bias and accusations of gaining position by quota rather than merit is an argument that I am sick of having.

There is no lack of initiatives and solutions being provided to battle the issue. In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was adopted to promote equality between men and women, as well as to eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex and marital status in the labour force. Countless reports and initiatives have been commissioned (i.e Gonski Report) to determine the barriers and provide solutions to the issue. In Australia in particular, numerous women’s organisations, such as Women in Power, the National Association of Women in Construction, Women in Technology etc., have been developed who continue to advocate for women in industry and business.

These initiatives and reforms are absolutely needed and provide strong evidence towards the existence of the ceiling and/or floor…but are they enough? Are they providing solutions or merely outlining what we already know?

Are there new ideas to try?

Some issues surrounding the employment of women in industry are deep-seated and steeped in history so short-term remedies or ‘band-aid’ solutions will not work. In order for any initiative to be effective, long-term strategies advocating change, and change for a defined reason, are needed. Every decision within this arena has implications from a resourcing, time and cost perspective; these considerations must be weighed up against the goals to be achieved and the energy and motivation for change. Offering pathways to ensure women are able to improve their career prospects while helping industry and organisations meet business goals is achievable, and achievable through a number of different mechanisms.

As outlined by David Gonski himself, there is a massive pot of under-utilised talent in the workforce but nothing comprehensive or practical seems to be happening to get said talent into positions of influence or higher management in the corporate arena. A disconnect between what leaders are saying and the reality of corporate life and culture is clearly evident; unconscious bias continues to be a problem, maintaining challenges to diversity and the ever-evident cultural conundrums of the pay gap, child care opportunities and flexible working conditions continue to plague any resolution to the issue.

Programs that educate women about careers, particularly those careers in predominantly male-dominated industries, must be introduced or continue to be supported if already existing. Women must be provided advice and information on career potentialities and opportunities as well as gaining skills in confidence and experience through mentoring and coaching partnerships.

The introduction of gender awareness programs is inherent to industry to break down stereotypes and diminish unconscious bias. From a cultural perspective, all people, both men and women, must be made aware of their attitudes towards women in the workforce and to foster partnerships between men and women to maximise the benefits of working together.

Prominent male leaders from the public and private sectors should continue to speak candidly about why gender equity is a national imperative, why diversity initiatives alone aren’t working, and the changes Australia needs to embrace for everyone’s benefit. Key male leaders like Westpac’s Chief Executive of Australian Financial Services, CEO of Commonwealth Bank of Australia and CEO of Qantas, all believe that Australia cannot afford to leave half the population out of the hiring equation. In their experience, diversity at all levels lowers risk and improves organisational performance. In a diverse organisation: leadership groups make smarter, more informed decisions; customers are better understood; employees are less cynical and more engaged; and organisations gain competitive advantage.

Men who don’t realise the privileged position they hold can also provide assistance to the cause by overcoming their sense of entitlement. As stated by Dr. Simon Longstaff – Executive Director at St. James Ethics Centre, ‘men rationalise their privilege without realising they validate every belief through prejudice.’

Most importantly, the issue of gender equity is a conversation that must take place between men so that men can be part of the change or, in some instances, lead the change! The issue needs to be led by the organisational CEO and supported by the leadership team who can talk the talk AND walk the walk. As outlined by David Gonski, it is “incumbent on men to open up the opportunities for women in business. If you want women to thrive and do well, the most important thing in any organisation is for the CEO to understand that it is their responsibility. I think if the CEO doesn’t support gender equity, the chance of it happening is very small.”

Women: friend or foe?

Throughout the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘sticky floor’ argument, there is always an element that makes me question whether we, as women, are doing enough for ourselves to overcome the barriers to inclusion, equality and employment. Sadly, I believe that we have a role to play in this issue, and one that we have not been playing well enough.

Research shows that women are generally kinder, more nurturing and empathetic to others than men. At the same time, they’re meaner, more dismissive, and critical of themselves. Women are hard on themselves. We are self-critical, we cannot take compliments, we always focus on our failings and we have a knack of blaming sexual evolution for our problems. As a well-known saying says: ‘show me a woman who doesn’t doubt herself and I’ll show you a liar.’ Whether it be our looks, our thoughts or our performance at work, there is always something that we are not happy about and that we would change if we could.

In order for women to achieve their personal goals, as well as overcome gender equality issues, we need to overcome our doubts and negative self-worth. We must realise that we do not have to be perfect and we must stop sweating the small stuff. We need to stop feeling guilty for something that we shouldn’t feel guilty for and instead, praise each other for the brilliant work we have done. We need to take ownership of our own lives and our careers and stop placing blame onto others or external forces for not being able to achieve what we want.

I also believe that we need to start having conversations differently about gender equity. We need to eradicate cultural bias and stop pitting men against women. We need to acknowledge that any positive change enacted to further equality is for the benefit of the greater good, not just women. Any changes to equity are essential changes to the fabric of our society and workplaces, which will benefit us all.

How do we do this?

To be honest, I am not entirely sure. Do we place as much emphasis on gender diversity and equality as we do safety? Do we continue to ‘positively discriminate’ to ensure women are placed in the leadership pipeline to the detriment of capable men? However, one thing is for sure: we need to educate future workforces and individuals about gender equality issues to increase knowledge and understanding of the issue as well as participation in schemes to combat the issue.

Inspiring stories

On a daily basis, I am reminded of and inspired by the work of male champions of change and women advocates. Energy Skills Queensland’s workforce skilling and employment programs provide assistance to disadvantaged personnel, including women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and mature-age jobseekers, by upskilling them with industry-required skills and subsequently placing them into employment.

The amazing group of females in Women in Power, are consistently advocating and promoting the advancement of women within the Electrotechnology, electricity and electrical appliance arena. The work that this group does addresses the cultural issues that are stopping targets and flexible work practices from having their intended effect and assists leaders ad organisations to step up and support embedding gender equity into organisational DNA, making flexibility the norm and thinking differently about career paths.

Last but not least, is the celebration of achievements of women and advocacy work. I am honoured, humbled and proud to have been awarded third place for the diversity award category for the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women award as well as being named a finalist in the National Association of Women in Construction and Lord Mayors Business Awards. Notably, I am privileged and flattered to call myself the 2016 Queensland Telstra Business Woman of the Year for the Social Enterprise and Not-for-Profit category, celebrating the work I do in the arena of diversity and equality.

To each and every person out there, male or female, I say this:

Every day, choose the right option between accepting a situation or making your future brighter by disabling bias and obstacles. Be determined to overcome individual and societal prejudices; support and celebrate each other’s journey. Whether they are stilettoes or steel-capped boots, unglue yourself from the sticky floor and shatter the glass ceiling into millions of pieces. Most importantly, take ownership of your life – overcome all barriers and difficulties and be the best you can be.

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