How women can break through the glass wall separating them from career success

Sue Unerman
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Broken glass
Women can see through the wall to meetings they’re excluded from or casual conversations they can’t participate in (Source: Getty)

FTSE firms face tough targets for women in top jobs. But is that what it takes to fix the current situation?

Last October, the Davies report came out, proclaiming good news: the target for women on FTSE 100 boards had been exceeded at 26 per cent.

On closer scrutiny, the news was much more mixed. Most of the women board members were part-time non-executive directors. The percentage of executive women on FTSE 100 boards was actually 9.6 per cent.

Now Sir Philip Hampton’s review of the gender balance on FTSE 350 boards is tipped to set targets as high as 35 per cent. Though this news has had a mixed reception, my view is, why on earth not?

Women are plentiful in the workforce. The only place they’re in a minority is in the board room. This isn’t good for profits. A 2016 report from Grant Thornton states that diverse boards in listed companies in India, the UK and the US outperform male-only peers by $655bn.

Another paper from Catalyst shows that firms with three or more female directors had a better profit margin than the average company by more than 40 per cent.

Look around you – are there as many women in senior management in your company as men at the top? And the very top job – is it usually held by a woman?

Women in work in the UK are still not getting the same opportunities to reach the top as men. Millions of women are not achieving their full potential at work and, at the same time, a good work/life blend.

The Glass Wall

Even where there is no glass ceiling there is instead a glass wall.

Women can see through the wall to meetings they’re excluded from or casual conversations that they aren’t participating in but which are vital to careers. Men and women can see each other very clearly through the glass, but they don’t speak the same language or have the same cultural expectations.

That’s why I decided to write with Kathryn Jacob “The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work – and Businesses that mean Business”.

The book gives women the tools to overcome the misconceptions and assumptions that are holding them back. It also contains clear advice for any business that is trying to promote women, failing, and can’t work out why.

Strategies for success include:

On the way up

Look at how the men around you behave. Don’t let yourself be left behind because they self-promote more aggressively than you do.

Speak up. There are many things to fear in life. Failure in a meeting is not one of them. Expect to fail sometimes. Intend to fail sometimes. If you don’t, you’re never going to learn anything.

Speak their language. If you’re proposing an idea, work out the best way to communicate it, even if that means “speaking football”.

From the top

Take the time to spot talent. If you can’t see the talent in the quieter people, and often that means the women, then slow down, try harder, look deeper.

Encourage everyone in the team to think of themselves as creative. Don’t let it be owned by an elite team – bring out the creativity in everyone.

Ensure that your whole team is expressing their real opinion. If everyone does as they are told all the time then there is something wrong. It is all too easy to surround yourself with yes men.

The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work – and Businesses that mean Business (Profile, £6.99) is out now.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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