Is the Glass Ceiling Broken or Only Cracked?
The workplace can be described as a jungle of testosterone, especially in historically masculine industries such as engineering, building, structures, etc. Many women still find that their voices are not heard, they are interrupted, spoken over or ignored in meetings and that much work takes place on the golf course, at football matches and other male-dominated events
I spent my formative years in India and that is where I started my journey of breaking through the glass ceiling. On arrival in the UK, the battle resumed due to language barrier (English). I started my career as a traffic warden and earned rapid promotions. I broke through the barriers and reached the highest of positions, including becoming president of the British Parking Association.
Over the last 40 years of my working life I often have had to justify my position or assert my authority. I still experience sexist behaviors. Challenging them, as well as changing the environment, can only be achieved by individuals who are free spirited and confident.
While each of us has a journey to make, few of us find the path to our destination without a struggle. Many will fall foul of their own unrealistic targets, some will waver and change course, and unfortunately many will become casualties of discrimination.
To make lasting progress we must now address the experiences and processes that remain covert and subtle. In the past, discrimination occurred openly in board rooms or during key meetings, now what we see is the informal networks that form for the purpose of controlling opinion.
We must all be aware of the current state of play and these informal networks, and fight to make sure that our official processes deliver equality and that our socializing promotes equality.
Katrina Lake, CEO of Stitch Fix (MCp $2 Bil, founded in 2011), recalls looking for venture capital funding and being told that a leading investor in her industry preferred to meet potential partners “over a beer, in his hot tub...” At the time, she felt intimidated by this informal process. Not only did she feel that it was inappropriate for her as a female to visit a male investor to “have beers with him in his hot tub,” but she was also managing her pregnancy.
Another strong female personality, Sheryl Sandberg, makes some notable observations in her book, Lean In. Namely, that women should focus on their career before childbirth and that they should balance their ambition (drive) with their appeal (warmth). For someone who has achieved as much as she has before having children these recommendations are easy to apply, but for most of us they are not applicable.
To really break the glass ceiling, we must change the way our teams think about their interactions. By asking some key questions during decision making (or discussing work while socializing) we can have a huge effect.
When talking to another race or sex, try using the following acid test: “If I said this to or about someone of my own race or sex would it be considered acceptable or useful?”
When a female colleague takes leave to give birth to a child, she normally prepares to be questioned on her return to work and future career, but rarely do men face the same inquisition.
As leaders, we should focus on the informal and formal groups in our offices. Although it may be useful to discuss points in the pub ahead of the next meeting, we should consider the effect we’re having on those not present. Instead of leveraging our diversity to get a broad opinion, we may be canvassing opinion against the views of a social group or department that’s not present. While previous generations have fought hard to break down these social barriers, the glass ceiling has only been cracked.
Some more fortunate individuals have managed to squeeze through by battling hard, but the system in place still remains a minefield to navigate and is relatively unfair. Over my career I have had exceptional support from my male peers within the parking fraternity. However, I know that my battles aren’t over and in a culture that has to keep growing, we must develop to make things better for everyone.
I finish off with a plea to those feeling the pain of discrimination and fighting hard to reduce it, keep your head high and stick to your values, in the end you’ll make the world a better place. To succeed you will need to challenge the crowd as it walks against you, but by walking alone you will discover places where no one has been before.
ANJNA PATEL MBE is a BPA Board Member and Past President. Principle Officer, Parking and Safer and Sustainable Travel Team, Sandwell. She can be reached at Anjna.firstname.lastname@example.org