Wednesday, 24 August 2011

women at the top

It is not news that women are still hitting a glass ceiling. What is different is how people define and talk about that glass ceiling. In the Guardian, in the response ot the publication of the Sex and Power survey 2011, I saw an intersting take on it.

Heather McGregor of the 30% Club – a group committed to bringing more women on to corporate boards in the UK and something I support – said "It's not a glass ceiling stopping women from getting to the top, but the fact that they are less likely to build networks, focus on their career priorities, and spend a substantial proportion of their time on their own PR. How will you ever be picked for a good job if no one knows about you?"

And this is where I get a bit annoyed. Women not doing something is not the same thing as saying there is no glass ceiling and it is all their own fault. People often don't do things precisely because there is a glass ceiling - but it is always easier to play the 'if you would only go out and do xx you wouldn't have a problem'.

I take the point that networking and having the contacts is important - but for me the question is why is it that women are not doing this and how do we address that rather than blame women wholesale for it.

My own view is that the reason women don't do this is linked to the patriarchal society we live in. Women are not socialised to 'big up' their work and skills in the same way men are - and we know that this has an impact on their salary as women are less likely to argue for a pay rise or to negotiate at the time of appointment to the same degree men are. It is acceptable for groups of men to range about golf courses on a Friday afternoon as part of their networking or to meet up for drinks or social events where this kind of networking can take place. When women are faced with the majority of the domestic and caring responsibilities popping out for some drinks to network is probably not that viable.

From my own experience my partner is very supportive of this aspect of my career. But I have met with comments from those I am networking with that are not. I have been asked 'where is your husband? and had comments along the lines of 'is your husband ok with you being out without him?'. I often get mistaken for someone's partner rather than the person who they should be networking with. Incredible in this day an age you may think - but it is there. Then there is the view that when women are doing this kind of activity they are 'gossiping' and that it is not seen as work. I have lost count of the times I have been teased for having coffee with contacts as though I only do this to talk about nail polish and the latest Sex and the City box set. Although it seems acceptable from men to talk about non-work related stuff like sports and cars when they network [yes, I know this is generalising].

I was once advised to mug up on football and other sporty ativities so I could hold a conversation in male dominated groups. First, I find it patronising to men to assume that they would not be able to converse with someone who doesn't know every score from last Saturday's games. But I also found it weird that there is no corresponding duty on men to study late into the night about what I am interested in to network with me. The onus is on women to fit in - not on social interactions to be based on the individuals who are there.

There is a final issue. This may just be me, but when I do network I am very aware of my gender on two counts. First, whether I will experience discrimination because I am female and sexual harassament because of my sartorial choices. Second, if it is an evening event I think about my safety. How will I get home? Will I be travelling with a group or on my own? Is it the last train out of Glasgow - in which case you won't see me networking on an evening when there is an Old Firm match that day. As I grow older I feel more comfortable about my clothing choices - after all, assault is wrong no matter what you wear and 'she had a short skirt on' is not a defense. And I have learnt through my own experience and report after report on sexual harassment and sexual assualt that jeans and a hoody do not protect you.

Neither of these issues should hold water in the 21st century - but they do.

If the reason women are not progressing is because they are not networking then a culture where women can't access that is part of a glass ceiling. Yes, there are cracks in the glass but we aren't breathing fresh air yet.

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