It's time to smash the glass wall

Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob are so frustrated about the preconceptions and prejudice still facing women in the workplace that they have written a book to challenge the status quo.

Unerman (left) and Jacob: their book suggests ways for women to  break through the glass wall that continues to prevent them from fulfilling their potential at work
Unerman (left) and Jacob: their book suggests ways for women to break through the glass wall that continues to prevent them from fulfilling their potential at work

Every woman is entitled to achieve her full potential at work and, at the same time, a good work/life balance. There are millions at the moment who are not.

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

You can see through it, to the meetings that you’re excluded from or the casual conversations that accelerate careers that you aren’t participating in. Men and women can see each other very clearly through the glass, but they don’t speak the same language or have equivalent cultural expectations.

For some women, a glass wall appears where there has been nothing before because of a change of management or role. For other women, it is so customary, so habitual, to be on the wrong side of a glass wall that they don’t even try to break through.

The glass wall has several aspects. Some are to do with the culture of the company you’re working in: it might not have a tradition of senior women, or it might be just too homogeneous (for example, the board are all white middle-aged men in suits) to allow outliers (and being a women might make you an outlier in this respect) to progress.

There are walls built from managers’ nervousness around maternity leave (whatever the official company policy) or inability to understand that not everyone laughs at the same jokes or behaves as if they’re in a boys’ locker room.

Then there are the walls that result from how women are brought up, really from our culture. The way we are expected to behave by schools, by our friends, perhaps by our parents. These walls block women and not men; men just don’t have these walls in the same way. (They may experience other ones, built from society’s expectations of them, but that is the subject for another book.)

If you haven’t spotted the wall yet or don’t know where the wall comes from, you will have trouble getting rid of it, so this is the time to be very clear about it. The glass walls that come about from cultural expectations are deep-rooted and have lasted for a very long time.

As part of the background to our book, we commissioned research across three countries – the UK, the US and Russia – to assess what men and women felt about their careers. A majority of those surveyed said that women encountered barriers to their careers. No surprise there. But we also found a greater percentage of men than women said that they are very ambitious. It seems that women are ambiguous about the word "ambition".

Societally, does that indicate that we see ambition as the preserve of men? Is there a glass wall in the fact that females are unwilling to articulate their ambition so that career fulfilment is unattainable?

There are many more aspects of the glass wall. Women tend to recite their flaws, rather than their talents, and some are willing to settle for a safe, more junior role instead of shooting for the stars.

What women need is to see the glass wall when they come up against it, to know what to do about it, and to go against some of what society expects in order to smash it.

We want our book to make it clear that no woman is alone in this fight.

Be resilient: It’s a numbers game

"Blokes are used to playing a numbers game in dating," Briony, a director at a global media company, says. "Ask enough times and it will work. Men grow up knowing that there will be a next time. Women give everything a huge dramatic edge."

She seems to be on to something here. Women don’t always ask for what they want in case they get turned down. Men seem instinctively to understand that, if they don’t ask, then they definitely won’t get what they want – but also, and perhaps more crucially, that the very act of asking makes a positive answer more likely in the long run.

Take the example of Lettie. She wants a promotion: she has been in her role for 18 months and knows that she is doing well. Should she wait, like a good girl, and see what happens? Or should she break with the status quo and ask for what she wants?

Lettie decides to go for it. She sets up a meeting with her boss and sets out her reasons for being promoted. Her boss replies that things are looking pretty bleak and that promotions are not on the cards. Now what? Should she go back to her desk and lick her wounds? Absolutely not. Instead, she says: "I’m coming back to see you in a week with a set of ideas that will improve efficiencies and help us with a step change."

Lettie not only spends time preparing for this meeting – she also looks ahead. She mentions to her boss’ boss that she is having this meeting, and will share the ideas with him too. 

Lettie’s resilience is impressive. It does pay off. The next time an opening for promotion comes up in another department, her boss puts her forward for it. Normally, he would have just ignored an opportunity in another team. He has got the message loud and clear from Lettie.

When the new role is suggested to Lettie, she’s a bit taken aback. She wanted a promotion in her current division. Suddenly, there are all those doubts that we have all experienced. Is she up to a bigger job in another part of the company? As a Hewlett-Packard study found a few years ago, men will apply for a job when they consider themselves 60% qualified for it, while women won’t raise their hands until they feel 100% qualified.

Fortunately, Lettie’s boss makes it clear that she should not worry – he will support her.

Are too many women ruling themselves out for big roles? Does the risk seem too high to jump to a senior position? We believe women need to be a bit more laid back about the numbers game. Ask enough times and you will get what you want. If you feel half-qualified, you’re probably twice as qualified as anyone else applying for the role.

A manager should understand that men and women have different perceptions of the numbers game and act accordingly. Think about how you say no to your female talent.

Banter and sex

Sexuality confuses the workplace. Flirting and banter can be tricky to navigate. In a traditionally male-populated environment, where most of the jobs are held by men, or where all of the high-status jobs are held by men, the atmosphere is going to be different from one where there’s a more equal gender mix.

If you don’t like the tone of the banter around you, do something about it. Giving as good as you get is one first step. Why not give even more than you get – don’t let anyone get away with undermining your professionalism, even for a moment. Work out a powerful, preferably witty, response and continually deliver it, at even the slightest sign of inappropriate behaviour. If the banter is public, make sure your put-down is public too.

You’re doing this not just for yourself but for any other woman who might find themselves in the same position. You will get support.

And if you’re the boss and you’re tolerating this kind of atmosphere in the workplace and then wondering why you don’t have senior women in the team, you need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Sue Unerman is chief strategy officer at MediaCom UK and Kathryn Jacob is chief executive of Pearl & Dean. The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work – and Businesses That Mean Business is published by Profile Books

The battle for equality

67% of women believe they "face barriers in the workplace that men do not".

43% of women say taking maternity leave has affected their career.

36% of women say a situation has arisen in their career where they would have been more successful if they were a man.

Source: Lightspeed GMI survey in the UK, US and Russia

Seven steps to success

Men are ambitious; women are ambivalent. Ask for what you want, ask for the help you need.

Men strut their stuff; women tend to play it down in order to conform. Be willing to speak out and don’t be afraid to fail sometimes.

Cutting through
Men like to be noticed; women like to get on with the work. Build your personal brand and stand up for your ideas.

Trouble troubles women differently from how it troubles men. Stick to your principles if things go wrong, challenge inappropriate banter and give as good as you get.

Men take things in their stride that throw women off course. Keep asking for what you want.

Men exploit their inner bastard; women hide the inner bitch. If you are undermined in the workplace, get angry. Fight your way back in, go feral and play the long game.

Treat people the way you want to be treated. Men have their own network. Helping other women helps you. Women need to pay favours forward.