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Smashing the glass ceiling


CRM calamityHot Potato 2008

WomanWith an increasing number of women taking up executive roles in management and leadership, is the glass ceiling becoming nothing more than an outmoded expression? Verity Gough talks to three inspiring women who have made it to the top.


Women at the top: Smashing the glass ceiling

Thanks to government legislation, gender inequality in the workplace has supposedly been banished to the annals of history but the war isn't over yet. However, a few champions are starting to emerge to redress the balance in the boardroom.

"The first time you lead a big team, the first time that you face working across countries, the first time that you take on an executive role... these are the things that impact you, not your gender."

Jackie Orme, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

In 2006, in response to the Women and Work Commission's report, 'Shaping a Fairer Future', the government implemented a comprehensive package of measures to address the causes of the gender pay gap and reduce the barriers which prevent women from fulfilling their full potential.

Companies were invited to sign up as exemplars of best practice for the advancement of women in the workplace by securing better maternity leave and pay, improving women's skills and training, and encouraging employers to offer flexible working. But despite the strides, why are so few women taking up executive posts?

"More than 30 years after sex discrimination legislation was introduced, some inroads appear to have been made in the workplace," enthuses Ruth Spellman, who earlier this month was appointed CEO of the Chartered Management Institute.

However, she points out that the Institute's annual National Management Salary Survey shows that inequalities are still evident in pay packets and promotion. "Unless employers address the issue, they are in danger of seeing a continuation of the recent trend in senior female executive resignations," she adds.

The trend to which she refers has been backed by research which claims that despite larger pay awards and higher incidents of bonuses, many women are still more likely to quit, with resignation rates standing at 5.7%, compared to 4% for men.

Nurturing the talent

But as a female executive currently working in the leadership and management industry, does Spellman feel that her achievements have been harder to come by because she is female?

"While it is encouraging to see that the number of female managers and leaders continues to increase, there is still a long way to go," she says. "Organisations should address this issue quickly because, unchallenged, it will demotivate and disrupt, with the end result being poor performance and productivity levels. In addition, we suffer as a nation from skill shortages and need to expand access to top level jobs."

Along with Spellman, Jackie Orme, the new CEO of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and Penny de Valk, who was appointed CEO of the Institute of Leadership and Management last November, have also both risen through the ranks. Have their experiences been shaped in any way by their gender?

"I have always worked in meritocratic organisations and in my experience, promotion is down to the capacity of the person to do the job on the ground of capability," says Orme. "In recent years, business leaders in particular have become more and more aware of the overall shortage of talent and the benefits of having diverse talent in their workplace. This should be the focus, rather than gender."

"Good leaders are those who inspire, motivate and provide a sense of direction, no matter what their gender."

Ruth Spellman, Chartered Management Institute

De Valk agrees. "The challenges I faced in my career have not revolved around my gender per se. They involve the usual challenges of getting things done through people with different agendas and capabilities and ensuring that investment in learning and development is clearly linked to the strategic plan, and the return on that investment tracked."

Industry bias?

That said, perhaps the number of successful women CEOs can also be attributed to the fact that the learning and development sector is particularly forward thinking when it comes to gender equality. This issue clearly exists in other industries, and a glance at recent pay scale statistics confirms this.

TUC research recently found the difference between men and women's pay more than trebles once women reach their 30s, while a further study by UK employment law firm Peninsula suggested that many women believe their organisations are biased against them and feel intimidated at work simply because of their gender.

With reports of gender-based bullying at work, is it any wonder women are reluctant to put themselves forward? Orme, however, is adamant that gender is a non issue for her and her organisation. "If you look at HR, which is my background, there is a female majority, so it's not that surprising to find that a body with 132,000 members that speaks on behalf of the HR and development profession is led by a woman," she says.

However, the fact remains that women and men do have different strengths and abilities. But does this extend to the work place? Research conducted by the CMI shows the best form of development is a combination of on-the-job learning, job related qualifications and experience, argues Spellman.

She also emphasises that, finally, there is an acknowledgement by employers that leaders are not just born but can be made: "Good leaders are those who inspire, motivate and provide a sense of direction, no matter what their gender," she says. "If leadership and management development is dependent on gender, stereotyping and bias will persist."

"The challenges I faced in my career have not revolved around my gender per se. They involve the usual challenges of getting things done through people with different agendas and capabilities."

Penny De Valk, Institute of Leadership and Management

This is something that Orme is also keen to highlight: "The thing about learning and development in this day and age is that it has to be tailored to the individual and be relevant," she says. "The best leadership development these days has the capacity to get that individual's context; their specific challenges, their opportunities and their potential.

"If you ask me if that varies massively between women and men, I'd have to say no. It's less about gender and more about tailoring and individuals."

She believes that career milestones are the things that have the most impact on a person's development. "The first time you lead a big team, the first time that you face working across countries, the first time that you take on an executive role... these are the things that impact you, not your gender," she says.

The importance of mentoring

With fewer females holding positions of power in organisations, mentoring and role-models can be a great support for women in their journey to the top – something that Orme herself has experienced. "The importance of role models should not be understated," she enthuses.

"My mentor's passion for taking calculated risks on people and supporting them was very inspiring to me. I now make a point of never forgetting to focus on and develop the people that work for me, especially HR who often get very involved in helping nurture everybody else and can often get sidelined."

She acknowledges the effect that mentors can have on nurturing and developing talent: not only does it help to build confidence but it can help foster important relationships across the generations. "Often what many women are looking for is the capacity to meet other women in similar situations and learn from them," Orme adds. "It's less about the fact they need different training but that they are looking for networks and role models, which has been difficult as there are less senior women in the workplace."

The achievements of these three women have been hard fought but one thing is certain, irrelevant of their gender, they have found themselves in positions of authority thanks to their commitment to the industries in which they work as well as their obvious ability to lead.

"Women are a minority group in many areas of the workforce, so being able to connect with others with similar backgrounds or similar challenges is always incredibly powerful," says Orme. "I have done it and hope to continue doing it for others as well."

The topic of gender equality will no doubt continue to rage but if women in the workplace can see the achievements of these women and be inspired to push themselves forward, then we are at least one step closer to closing the gender gap.

Reaching for the top

Photo of Penny De ValkPenny De Valk, ILM"Get a broad base of knowledge and experience in business in general to help you understand the challenges people experience and it will help with your personal credibility when you are talking to managers about the benefits of investing in learning and development."

Photo of Ruth SpellmanRuth Spellman, CMI"Focus your attention on making an impact in the workplace, delivering results and meeting objectives. Ultimately, it is achieving results that will get you noticed and the best way to do this is by being yourself."

Photo of Jackie OrmeJackie Orme, CIPD"The word that really matters is ‘relevance’. You really need to be relevant to the people you are working with – and to be relevant, you have to be able to understand their world, know it cold, know what drives it and know what gets in the way."



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