I remember several years ago debating with a CEO on the shocking lack of senior women in an organisation I worked in. After a frustrating time trying to convince him of the unconscious bias women faced in a male dominated workplace, he asked me what I thought the main problem was.
I said that maybe women just weren’t as intelligent or capable as men.
“I don’t believe that for a minute!” he said, totally shocked.
“Neither do I” I hit back, “and that’s my point!”
If it’s not a lack of intelligence or capability then something else is at work.
And it’s appropriately called a glass ceiling because it’s really difficult to see.
We can all point the finger and blame each other, at men for discriminating, or women for going off to have babies, but that doesn’t seem to fully explain, or more importantly, solve the problem.
We now have legislation in place to protect against discrimination and equal opportunities policies abound. Many employers provide maternity benefits I could only dream of when having my four kids. And there are crèches and play schemes aplenty to lure women back after childbirth.
So why is there still a problem and what can we do?
First, we all need to recognise that we all, men and women alike, have an unconscious bias against women in senior positions. Denial doesn’t help!
Then we need to invest in raising awareness of that bias and bringing it to consciousness. Only then can we address it.
And yes, training plays a part.
Some of the work to be done is pretty complex and some is pretty simple.
For example, one of the factors is that the criteria used to recruit and promote in the workplace are biased towards ‘male’ qualities. ‘Female’ qualities, which studies show are equally important for the health and success of an organisation, tend to be ignored, discounted or underrated.
Solving that requires a bit of work at an organisational level.
On the other hand, practical things like noticing that women tend to get talked over in meetings more often than men, and can find it difficult to speak out, are easy to sort out and can be addressed by a bit of training for both men and women.
Those of us that have worked in male dominated professions for any length of time, and have researched the gender divide, have many answers and lots of ideas for improving the situation.
The difficulty in my experience is in getting companies to make any investment in addressing them.
We could make a big difference if only they’d let us.
And that’s the real issue.