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Breaking Glass Ceiling In Leadership Roles

Women make up half the world's population, and an increasing number of women are entering the workforce every year. However, from being recruited  to earning promotions, women face barriers throughout the workplace. In spite of the discussions about diversity and inclusion in organizations, women in leadership roles are still in the minority. They receive fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to showcase their full potential, and  have to work harder and prove themselves repeatedly as they work their way up to senior positions.

A Grant Thornton report, 'Women in Business: Beyond Policy to Progress', states that while 75% of businesses had at least one woman in a senior management role in 2018, compared to 66% in 2017, women still hold only 24% of senior roles globally.  In India, the current percentage of senior roles held by women is only 20%, though it has increased marginally from 17% in 2017.

What can women do to crack the glass ceiling? There is no easy answer because circumstances differ from one woman and workplace to another. However, Jennifer W. Martineau, who has co-authored the book 'Kick Some Glass: 10 Ways Women Succeed at Work on Their Own Terms' with Portia R. Mount, believes that women can take charge of their own success. The book empowers women to understand their context, uncover what they really want, discover their definition of success, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and set goals to overcome the glass ceiling barriers.

Martineau is senior vice president of research, evaluation and societal advancement at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), a top-ranked non-profit global provider of leadership development. She is also a speaker, author, mother and passionate advocate for women's leadership. She has more than 25 years of experience in leadership research and how to apply it in practical, powerful ways for leaders and organizations. In an interview with SHRM India, Jennifer spoke about  how women can break through the glass ceiling  to attain leadership roles, especially in India.

Going Beyond Routine Efforts on Diversity and Inclusion

Discussions on the importance of diversity and inclusion practices in organizations have been widespread in recent  years . They sound great, but  there's been little action. The reasons are that these practices typically are drafted only to meet regulatory norms or ,in some cases, are poorly funded. For example, organizations could focus on inclusive recruitment to embed higher levels of diversity in its HR strategy. They could proactively recruit a pool of candidates that is at least 50% women before starting the selection process, says Martineau. She also stated that organizations should look at the glass ceiling as a systematic issue and not as an interpersonal or individual  problem. Organizations need to implement structured systems and practices to break glass ceilings and make space for women. If this is not done, then focused training for employees may fail.

Sponsorship programs are another  area worthy of  attention, says Martineau.. There is a popular Harvard Business Review article titled, 'Women Are Over-Mentored (But Under-sponsored),' which focuses on the need of structured and targeted sponsorship programs in organizations. Currently, because there are more men in top leadership positions than women, and men are more comfortable seeking out other men for sponsorship, they often end up ignoring women.  To overcome this issue, company leaders should use their networking and strength of relationships to help women gain more visibility. Mentoring alone does not equal promotions for women, but sponsorships may be the key to breaking workplace gender barriers.

Bridging the Gap between Talk And Walk

Martineau  argues that structured diversity and inclusion processes often are not translated into reality. The reason may be that organizations have to consider the interests of a large talent pool and often find it tough to please one gender. The fact is that men are still in the majority in leadership roles. If organizations focus solely on promoting women, male employees may raise questions. If organizations don't hear what men say, they may lose some of the talented employees in their workforce. It is a delicate dance between valuing men and promoting diversity. Organizations need to have transparent and authentic conversations with male employees on this subject, and explain the importance of adding more diversity.

Finding Balance Between Commonalities and Differences

The general view shared by Martineau is that there should be a focus on identifying more commonalities than differences in leadership so that women receive equal opportunities. However, this is open to interpretation. As human beings, people have so much in common that usually we can find shared values and principles, and then focus on differences. At the same time, differences can't be ignored. So, the ideal approach would be to implement boundary spanning leadership – a practice developed by CCL in the mid-2000s after extensive research globally, including in India, China and Singapore. This practice  advocates coming together within boundaries while expanding diversity.  To do so, says Martineau, it is important for both men and women leaders to share their experiences. Each side needs to listen and reflect on their experiences to explore what is common and what is different.  The end goal should be a sustainable organization in terms of diversity and inclusion.

Encouraging Women Leaders to Promote Women

A white paper titled, 'Queen Bee Syndrome,' co-written by CCL researcher Sophia Zhao and Maw-Der Foo from the National University of Singapore, states that senior women leaders resist providing career advancement opportunities to their women subordinates. The common assumption is that these women want to retain power and firmly believe that other women should labor hard like them to reach the top. However, there is another study, 'Does Valuing Diversity Result in Worse Performance Ratings for Minority and Female Leaders?',which offers an entirely different perspective. When women leaders make efforts to increase diversity, it often ruins their reputation, and they are seen to be less confident and poorer performers,  especially compared to their male counterparts.

Organizations need to eliminate this kind of barrier to encourage women leaders to promote, sponsor and support women subordinates.

Women Should Look Up to More Successful Women

There is a notion that there exists a stereotypical model of successful women and the traits they exhibit. However, there is no such model, says Martineau. Successful women leaders simply have different approaches, demographics, cultural values and behaviors. Some believe in collaborative leadership, while others are more results-driven. I If their behaviors are authentic then that approach will work for them. What is more important for younger women is to have more than one role model to look up to, so that they will find the success story that resonates with them and aspire to become such a leader.

The Existence of Glass Ceiling in India

Apart from breaking workplace gender barriers, Indian women also have to fight their way through social and cultural barriers. There is a deep-rooted internal belief system which prevents most female employees from exploring their potential. Glass ceiling barriers remain the same for all women, irrespective of where they are located. It is only the degree to which the  barrier is relevant  that may vary from one country to another, says Martineau. Society can't be changed overnight, but if women identify what is really important to them, they can work with  others at home and at the office to create strategies to  overcome the glass ceiling. If they have their eyes set on certain career goals, they can make smart choices  and seek help from their family and employers.

Even organizations can play a major role in practicing gender-free policies. For instance, flexible working hours will benefit both men and women.

Key Takeaways from the Book

The top three key takeaways for women from Martineau's  book are:

  • Carve your path. Understand what you want to do and where you want to reach. You need to have clarity of goals for your career.
  • You are not alone.  You don't have to fight your battle on your own. Look for help, network and take initiatives to increase your visibility.
  • "You're not crazy, it's not just you". Glass ceilings are very real barriers that women face, and when you become aware of them, it provides strength and confidence to work out strategies to  complete them.

Men and women should be on equal footing in every sphere of life, including  the workplace, says Martineau. Organizations need to understand that more diversity at the top leads to better decision making and business outcomes. In a parallel direction, women should break the glass ceilings in their minds, maintain self-confidence, and talk openly about their accomplishments to get noticed and go after what they want fearlessly.

About the Authors:

Shruti Sud leads the Marketing function at SHRM India and Apurv Amanesh works as Regional Manager - North & East at SHRM India.


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