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Why Focusing on the Glass Ceiling Is Not Enough

From women's suffrage to female representation on boards, International Women's Day has celebrated the achievements of women for more than 100 years.

From women's suffrage to female representation on boards, International Women's Day has celebrated the achievements of women for more than 100 years.

On the surface it would appear that 2016 has been an exceptional year for female empowerment. Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton is making waves in the race to the White House with the potential of a first female president. Over in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi led her party to victory last year while high-profile women like Emma Watson made huge advances for feminism at the UN with her "HeforShe" campaign.

Despite such public progress, the so-called 'glass ceiling' continues to be blamed for a lack of female advancement in the workplace. Yet this outdated expression does not fully explain the real hurdles women still face in the workplace in 2016.

The reality is that female staff leave companies for a huge number of reasons, from a range of positions in the corporate hierarchy. Our research shows that women make up 51 percent of the non-management workforce, dropping to 40 percent for mid-level positions, 32 percent at department head level and just 21 percent at the top executive level.

It is right that fewer women are making it to the top than men. Notable exceptions, such as CEO of Newton Investment Management, Helena Morrissey, have climbed to the top of their organisations while raising a large family. Yet she is regrettably a rare example; too few women are able to achieve a balance between the demands of family and professional life.

It's no longer the 'glass ceiling' that is preventing female advancement in the workplace. Our research shows that there is no one barrier at a specific point up the ladder that blocks women from fulfilling their leadership potential, but rather collections of micro-decisions that ultimately lead to a lack of diversity at the top of many companies. All too often managers are overlooking women for opportunities based on assumptions and second-guessing, for example high-risk, high-reward assignments will be undesirable due to women with children because on the strain on family commitments.

The solution, surprisingly, may come from the world of crime prevention. Rather than fixating on the 'glass ceiling', a more appropriate vision is the 'broken windows' theory, which holds that small acts of crime, such as littering, graffiti, or broken windows, will escalate to more serious ones if ignored. Diversity issues are very similar. Small decisions about women and their careers made the same way many times aggregate to create a more serious lack of equal opportunity for women, impairing their ability to carve a place for themselves in the corporate world. As with small criminal actions, these seemingly harmless oversights by employers will build up and ultimately result in driving out valuable female talent.

Of course, prevention is better than a cure. Smart companies today will focus their efforts on preventative measures to address what might look like minor challenges in the way of female advancement. They put the time in to understand and engage female employees early in their careers. They help women achieve their full leadership potential by 'mending the windows', whether that means enabling flexible working practices, openly discussing career ambitions and opportunities, or seeking new ways to support and quickly reintegrate those who have taken maternity leave.

Those companies that invest the time and effort are seeing clear rewards. Our research shows that firms with diverse leadership generate twice the revenue and profit growth as those without.

International Women's Day is an important milestone to mark the achievements of women around the world. But let's also use it to urge organisations to mend 'broken windows' by supporting equal opportunity throughout a woman's career.

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