It’s more than 40 years since the phrase “the glass ceiling” was first used to describe the invisible barrier that often comes between women and career success. The depressing news in a corporate environment patting itself on the back for its diversity and inclusion efforts is that the glass ceiling still exists. It continues to be a phenomenon predominantly associated with women, but it is also experienced by other minority groups in the workplace.
Breaking through that ceiling remains a work in progress because it is a multifaceted problem linked to political will and underpinned by a combination of apathy, traditional hierarchies and social mores. And it’s not just men who need to reflect on their attitude. Women do too as they can be surprisingly unsupportive of their sex and every bit as prone to unconscious bias as men.
This realisation came as a wake-up call to one manager who suddenly realised she was being more sympathetic to a male subordinate looking for a raise than to his female colleague because she saw him as “the provider”.
In these challenging times, it's difficult to fight your own battles, let alone someone else's, but this is exactly when interventions will matter most
Hira Ali is an author, speaker and founder of Advancing Your Potential, a consultancy focused on empowering women and promoting ethnic minority leadership. She told The Irish Times that, while women undoubtedly need to support each other to break through the glass ceiling, the far more pressing issue is helping men who want to advocate for women in the workplace to do so.
Ali is a realist who recognises that this is easier said than done because of the obstacles men may face. “Major deterrents include fear of judgment, backlash and disapproval from male peers – also known as the dreaded wimp penalty,” she says.
Covid hasn’t helped. “In these challenging times, it’s difficult to fight your own battles, let alone someone else’s, but this is exactly when interventions will matter most,” Ali adds. “Covid-19 is magnifying gender-based inequalities around the world, reversing decades of progress towards equality.”
Ali published her first book, Her Way to the Top: A Guide to Smashing the Glass Ceiling, in 2019 and her latest offering continues the theme but focuses on providing men with practical advice on becoming allies for women at work.
The pace of change is accelerating and many more men now want to make a difference. However, challenging the status quo is never easy
Ali believes bringing men onside has never been more important. The 2020 Women in the Workplace report from McKinsey found that, as a result of the pandemic, “more than one in four women are contemplating what many would have considered unthinkable just six months ago: downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely... Companies risk losing women in leadership – and future women leaders – and unwinding years of painstaking progress toward gender diversity.”
While Ali’s new book is primarily aimed at men, she says women and anyone else who feels they are treated “differently” because of gender or ethnicity may find the strategies outlined equally relevant. “The glass ceiling is thicker than it looks for all of these groups,” she says. “But the pace of change is accelerating and many more men now want to make a difference. However, challenging the status quo is never easy.”
Ali says that while it’s impossible to change the mindset of an organisation in one fell swoop, it is possible to influence and change the mindset of those working within it.
“All organisations are composed of individuals with their own beliefs, values and priorities which, in turn, influence those of their organisation. To effect real change, we must appeal to the individuals within the organisation who can drive it, “she says.
To support her hypothesis, Ali refers to the executive mentor and coach Gill Whitty-Collins (author of Why Men Are Winning at Work), who argues that until powerful men really understand the inequality problem, nothing will change.
“It’s not about obvious sexism,” Whitty-Collins writes. “The conscious stuff is horrendous, but it’s easier to deal with because it’s just wrong. What’s very difficult to tackle is the unconscious bias from well-intentioned men, who genuinely think they are promoting men for big jobs because they are better. Of course, that can be right 50 per cent of the time but, based on the data, it cannot be right 95 per cent of the time.”
Ali says that part of the problem is that men often assume themselves to be an authority on the lived experiences of women. “As a consequence, they make mistakes and they need to apologise for them and try to do better by being more aware and open.”
While women's rights and empowerment have evolved over time, men have hardly matched pace with their idea of masculinity
Ali is not alone in believing the time has come for men to become better allies for women in the workplace. Good Guys is a 2020 book from Harvard Business Press on the same subject by US professors David Smith and Brad Johnson, who have previously written about why men should mentor women. In the preface they write, "Yes, men needed to get better and more deliberate at mentoring women, but in order to become full conspirators in addressing bias, sexism, pay inequities and poor representation of women in leadership, men also needed to become better colleagues, advocates and accomplices with women."
However, enabling them to do may require a fundamental rethink of male gender stereotyping.
“While women’s rights and empowerment have evolved over time, men have hardly matched pace with their idea of masculinity; that blueprint from decades ago is still intact even though the world looked very different then,” Ali says.
Her Allies: A Practical Toolkit to Help Men Lead Through Advocacy by Hira Ali is published by Neem Tree Press