There are several facts of life we are all well aware of. Yet we choose to overlook them. One of them is gender discrimination. The deeply entrenched patriarchal system in our society has been denying women their due for ages. Despite possessing the required qualifications, competencies and abilities women find themselves lagging behind their equally or even less proficient male counterparts in most professions.
The problem is not restricted to the lesser developed countries as is generally believed. Women professionals bear the brunt of this discrimination even in the most advanced countries.
The corporate world which swears by meritocracy and thrives on performance-based efficiency too is a victim of this malaise. Women fail to rise beyond a point and the top positions and boardrooms are packed with men.
This is what has come to be known as the ‘glass ceiling’. It is invisible. Yet it takes tremendous efforts for women corporate executives to break it and move up in the organisational hierarchy. Many women have managed to do that. But they are exceptions considering the large and growing number of women in the corporate sector.
Former editor of Working Woman, Gay Bryant was quoted in an Adweek article in 1980s as saying, “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. There isn’t enough room for all those women at the top. Some are going into business for themselves. Others are going out and raising families.” The Wall Street Journal carried an article in March 1986 headlined “The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can’t Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier that Blocks Them from the Top Jobs”.
The debate has gained momentum since then. In 1991, the US Labour Department’s research project called the ‘Glass Ceiling Initiative’ defined the new term as “those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organisational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organisation into management-level positions.” (This report had, however, also covered discrimination based on ethnicity.)
This is despite the fact that today’s private companies are competing in a global environment and need best available and affordable talent to survive and grow. Preventing our competent female managers and executives from attaining their full potential can be suicidal for companies. Also, this will deter girls from joining the corporate workforce.
Noted management and HRD expert, Dr. Hema Krishnan, currently a Professor of Strategic Management in Xavier University, USA, has made some highly significant observations: (a) having an increased representation of women in top positions sends a positive signal to the rest of the organisation and augurs well for the treatment of other women; (b) a woman’s leadership style, often perceived to be nurturing, inspires confidence among her peers and subordinates, and especially among the other women; and (c) women play multiple roles in their personal lives which sharpen their interpersonal, conflict resolution ability and other leadership skills. This combination of adaptability, interaction with peers and subordinates, and an ability to nurture and inspire can help an organisation to succeed.
Yet progression to top management remains a major challenge for most aspiring and deserving women managers.
What is the way out?
The first step involves identifying the key competencies within your company and then assessing how much you are aligned with them. This is called core competence analysis. While a conservative company will value employees who are analytical, careful and avoid risks, the other one focused on innovation will prefer risk takers who express themselves openly. You will thus find yourself tied closely to the respective company’s culture and vision. You will have a good understanding of the attributes of the organisation’s top management. Chances of promotion will rise.
So far so good! Now move beyond understanding of the targets. Set goals to get there. (You can consult your reporting authority). This is personal goal setting. Take the initiative. Do not wait for tasks to be handed over to you. You should let you boss know that you are willing to go the extra mile and take on additional responsibilities. Seek his/her advice about new skills you need to learn. It is essential to keep on monitoring and measuring your progress.
Compared to their male colleagues, women managers are known for paying less attention to professional networking. This can and does affect their career growth. It is essential to build relationships at all levels in the organisation not only for ease of work but also for information gathering. Building ties only with top management is not the best idea. It may alienate you from your peers. You need all to rise to the top and stay there. Meet new-comers regularly. Get involved with cross-functional teams. Your professional networking should extend outside of your organisation. Do not forget that in case you fail to break the glass ceiling in your organisation, then you may need to look for options outside.
A mentor can be the best conduit to upward growth. The mentor is usually a senior person in top management. S/he has an inside view of the company’s thought process at the highest decision-making level. S/he can prove to be a reliable source of information and also help you in making sense of the information. Given her/his experience, you can expect invaluable professional tips from such a person. It is best to seek mentoring support from your immediate boss and then move upwards.
It is equally important to ensure that you develop your competence, leadership skills, communication skills, technical know-how and other competencies that people at the top expect from potential fast trackers. While your eyes are set on the top management, those at the helm are also always looking for mid-level managers who can be promoted to the organiSation’s executive committees, boards of directors, etc. Are you visible to them from the top? Have you been seeking and excelling in high-profile projects? Have you been making vital and practical contributions in meetings? That is, have you been able to build a reputation for yourself? Try to create one in areas where you are lacking so that you are easily identifiable as top management material.
As you are planning to rise to the top by breaking the invisible glass ceiling it is obvious that you should be ready to face and fight discriminatory behavior if any. Gender-based biases, prejudices and stereotypes have deep roots in our society. Besides competence and other abilities you will need a lot of grit and perseverance to tackle this challenge. Emotional intelligence plays a vital role here. Knowledge of your rights, company policies and local laws is essential too.
I look forward to more and more deserving women finding their rightful place in top corporate management.
Basant Chaudhary is Poet and Writer and also Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. ([email protected])