Breaking through the glass ceiling

Why, why, are only 15 per cent of directors at top British companies women?

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A man and his son are driving along a motorway when there is a horrific car accident. The father is killed instantly, but his son survives in a critical condition. Upon the arrival of paramedics the boy is rushed to hospital where the surgeon on call declares: “I cannot operate on this boy because he is my son.” How is this possible?

For all those who have not heard the riddle, the boy’s mother is the surgeon. The riddle ably demonstrates that despite the progression of women in the workplace, there are still arenas where traditional thinking does more than limit female progression. Fortunately, at York we seem to be one of the leaders in change – at least in terms of female aspiration. Professor Pratibha Gai, York JEOL Nanocentre Founding Professor of Electron Microscopy and a member of both the University’s Chemistry and Physics departments, has been at the forefront of this change. She recently became only the fifth female to receive the prestigious L’Oreal UNESCO European Laureate for 2013.

But we still need to question why the distribution of female-male models at the top is not more equal. It is not a case of education: in 2009 statistics showed that 49.2 per cent of girls between the ages of 17 and 30 were in higher education, compared to just 37.8 per cent of boys of the same age bracket. Last year, of 2,600 undergraduate students, 1,400 of these graduates were female. Two hundred more women departed our university than men last year, with high but fluctuating performance in the league tables. If you examine the statistics of previous years the story is repeated. So, why is it that only 5.7 per cent of the executive, board-level directors of FTSE 150 companies are women?

Obviously, just because an individual has a degree does not mean that they are suitable or even able to rise to the top of a global company. However, there are clearly bright, articulate, and highly educated young women entering the workplace each year. Yet the media is still discussing female aspiration and debates still rage about the existence of a glass ceiling.

The answers are often touted: girls tend to do better in education, where ‘learning’ is usually a matter of jumping through hoops and learning a set pattern, whereas boys tend to perform well in initiative-based assessments. Returning to the university statistics above supports this claim as if you look closely an interesting angle appears: men tend to get the better degrees, graduating, by and large, with a greater number of firsts than their female counterparts.

Many women do not make it into the boardroom. Is it because of the existence of a negative patriarchy, or perhaps because women have babies, and companies see that as a liability? Women do have children, and yes, that can hold them back, but equally Britain’s laws are changing in order to facilitate both maternity and paternity leave to both genders’ advantage. That excuse is falling by the wayside.

So why, why, are only 15 per cent of directors at top British companies women?

It is the attitude of business, the corporate culture. But it is not our attitude. As a generation we’ve grown up with empowered, purposeful women, but the group of men (and the minority of women) who presently sit on the boards of large companies have not. The FT recently discussed the increasing age of board members – in the US over 50 per cent of board directors retire aged 72.

The attitudes and the makeup of the boardroom will change, and are changing. But this article doesn’t call for complacency: we must continue to celebrate and encourage aspiration – as we have for Professor Gai. Her achievement should be noted, not because of her sex, but because of her intellectual ability. When we can acknowledge that, and not her gender, it is then that boardrooms will cease to be the near exclusive preserve of men.

One comment

  1. 9 Nov ’12 at 4:51 pm

    Michael Butcliffe

    So, the way I’m reading the statistics is that Men clearly must be better at jobs than women as they have a better employment strikerate right?

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