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FEMALE LEADERS in the workplace – breaking the glass slipper, ceiling & cliff

Lawyer Life, Leadership, work-life balance, Working environment

Article 3 of 3 in the Female Leadership series

CO-WRITTEN BY FRIEDA LEVYCKY (BRAVING BOUNDARIES) & ALICIA KOCH (THE LEGAL BELLETRIST)

Think back to when you still played with dolls and had tea parties with your teddy bears. When we all still believed in magic and talking animals. When we all still watched Walt Disney with a certain sense of belief. And wonder.

We all wanted to be the heroine in our own stories. We all wanted to be the princesses in our own fairytales.

Take Cinderella as an example. Despite being, for want of a better word, a servant in the beginning of the story, we all still wanted talking mice as friends like her, we all wanted to talk to birds like her and we all wanted to have our own Happily Ever After like her. We all wanted to be Cinderella.

I mean, why not? At the end of the day she was rewarded for her hard work and strife with one night that changed her life. Forever.

Swoooooon.

The fairy tale – no glass ceilings or cliffs in sight

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Donned in her one-of-a-kind, exquisite dress and glass slippers (all provided by her magical Fairy Godmother), Cinderella runs down the stairs as the clock strikes 12 (just before her carriage turns into a pumpkin) leaving behind one glass slipper – the only clue to her identity for her one true love to find.

Umm, hello? Wouldn’t he just recognize her face, her laugh, her voice? Why the glass slipper? And – as an aside – if it fit so perfectly, how did it fall off her foot in the first place?

Miraculously, prince charming by sheer wit and will alone (whatev’s) finally finds Cinderella, the glass slipper fitting her perfectly (I mean how unique were her feet?) and suddenly he recognizes her. Because of her glass slipper….. not because of her.

And they lived Happily Ever After.

Simple as that.

Preposterous!

I mean a shoe cannot be the key to a Happily Ever After, can it? (If so, then Alicia, here is the proof that your shoe fetish has been wholeheartedly justified).

The real world glass slipper

If we’re really honest – we wanted the happily ever after part. We too wanted to get everything we had ever dreamed of.

If we are really, really honest, we dreamt of having our own Fairy Godmother, of wearing the glass slippers and of having our own prince charming sweep us off our feet.

We are both romantics at heart….. and naïve.

But it was only later that we discovered that stories like Cinderella were not only wholly inaccurate, they were also make believe. They were fairy tales. Some might even say that they were vehicles for keeping women in line – be good, work hard and you will be rewarded with your prince charming. A whimsical tale, which may even dissuade a woman from actually trying to climb the corporate ladder in the first place – why do all that if you only need a prince charming to make you happy?

And whilst we always had a taste for expensive heels, it was only later in our careers that the “glass slipper” magically appeared in our life. Just not in the way we had always imagined it would.

You see, adulthood has a way of poking holes into even the most charming of fairy tales. And even the most innocent of wishes.

Reality is no fairytale.

So, let’s talk about the “glass slipper” in the real world….

Problem 1 for females in the workplace: The Glass Ceiling

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Not a slipper at all, rather a ceiling. The glass ceiling can be described as an invisible barrier that prevents women from rising to higher ranks within a corporation. And women continue (even in this day and age. Perhaps, especially in this day and age) to struggle to get fair representation in corporate boards and higher management levels because of it.

You know you have reached this glass ceiling when lesser qualified individuals than you keep passing you by, smugly being promoted to more senior roles.

In fact in a study titled the Impact of Glass Ceiling on Stress, Well-Being, Self-Esteem, Effective Organizational Commitment and Job Satisfaction among Working Women, the following was set out – “even though there is a considerable increase in participation and subsistence of women employees in the workforce, the ingress of women into higher managerial positions remains restricted”.

And that was in 2019.

It is clear that the glass ceiling is still being fought today. I mean we can see through it. We just cannot break through it. Still.

In our article Women leaders in the workplace – why are we so few?, we highlighted the fact that based on the January 2021 S&P 500 list, women currently hold only 31 of the total CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. That makes up a meager 6.2% of total global top 500 companies.

Startling.

And we’re certain that a common thread with each of the female CEOs has been to fight tooth and nail for the role. Because they undoubtedly had to work doubly hard for the position. It’s a battle women around the world face in their workplace. No matter how “diverse” their oganisation may claim to be.

And don’t forget, the effects of the glass ceiling can be felt long after you have bumped your head against it – year after year. In fact, in the afore mentioned study, the researcher wanted to “throw the light on the need of equality which is only seen in policies / practices, but the fact is females are not taken as healthy competitors of males in professional roles due to the social taboo & how these things are affecting their performance, job satisfaction, work-life balance, stress levels & their confidence.”

In fact, and according to health line, the realities of inequality in the workplace can have a direct effect on women’s health and well-being. A stalled career and the inability to gain a higher income can leave you with a bundle of mixed feelings, including self-doubt, a sense of isolation, resentment, anger, stress, mood disorders, anxiety and depression. I am certain we have all felt it at one point or another.

And whilst women have been chipping away at the glass ceiling for years, there is still a long way to go.

However, the important take away is this – being held back because of the glass ceiling, is a reflection on the company you work for. And not on you or your abilities.

You can manage the stress, depression and anxiety by talking to someone who understands you, who can listen and provide some guidance, like Braving Boundaries.

So keep looking beyond that glass ceiling and focus on the stars instead.

“Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star” – W. Clement Stone

Problem 2 for females in the workplace: The Glass Cliff

Michelle Ryan, a social and organizational psychologist at the University of Exeter, (and the person responsible for coining the phrase the “glass cliff”), described the research-backed phenomenon as when women are promoted to senior leadership positions during a difficult time for a company, when the risk of failure is high. And fail to lead because of it.

It is a sister phenomenon to the glass ceiling and is seemingly one of the major ways that women can attempt to break through the glass ceiling. Unfortunately.

It’s easy to understand why it is likened to a cliff – given the ease in which you can fall off it!

And the crucial thing with the Glass Cliff is the timing and manner in which women are promoted to leadership positions. Are women only chosen for top positions because of precarious times, because employees are demanding diversity, because their stakeholders are demanding diversity?

According to Michelle Ryan and in answer to the above question, (together with her colleague Alex Haslam), the “failure to lead” during difficult times is not due to women being bad leaders, but because they were appointed as leaders when companies were failing themselves.

The conclusion? – if women are only promoted during times of crisis the fact that they fail is not because they are unable to lead, but because leading in a time of crisis is more difficult and more precarious than leading when everything is smooth sailing. It’s the circumstance and not the quality of leadership.

Seemingly obvious.

And what inevitably results from “failing to lead” during these times of crisis is the assumption (and stereotype) that women are unable to lead and are not good in leadership roles.

Not only nonsense but outright unfair!

The glass cliff and glass ceiling in action

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I (Frieda) once had a conversation with the senior heads of a global corporation about its lack of diversity in the executive team. Of the 20 members, not a single female was represented. When I pointed out the benefits that qualified and capable women would bring to the team, I was greeted by a roll of the eyes and a sneer: “We’ve tried that twice before and look at how that turned out.”

I was pretty astounded by the response. I knew the women who had been appointed to these top positions: both strong, charismatic, clever women. Women who had dedicated the majority of their professional careers to the organization. And when I say dedicated – I mean dedicated. They’d sacrificed time with their families. Worked late into the night. Travelled the world to meet with consumers and staff. These were women whose hard work and integrity I admired. Whose dedication had warranted their promotion.

But once they had jumped every hurdle possible to achieve the lofty heights of the executive suite – it became a never-ending battle to stay there. Instead of focusing on the capability, compassion, innovative way of thinking which they had brought to the executive suite, one was cloaked by rumours that she’d slept her way to the top – quite frankly, who cares who she was sleeping with (if she was). She was excellent at her job and deserved a seat at the table. And the other was knowingly promoted into a position outside of her area of expertise at a time when the company was really struggling. Glass cliff – here we come! A year later, she was replaced by a man. Back into familiar territory we go.

The cards were written before the executive suite door had even been opened.

Despite regaling this information to the senior heads, I’m sorry to say that it landed on deaf ears. The same corporation today still has a leadership team of 20 people – only one of them is a woman.

So how are the glass ceiling and glass cliff tackled?

Not through positive discrimination – that’s for sure! Appointing women to higher ranking positions purely because quotas or external financing require it, doesn’t stop sexist behaviour – it fuels it. Positive discrimination suggests that women need a leg up to get to the executive level. What nonsense! Women deserve to be appointed because of their talents, because of their hard work, because of their perspective. Appointments should be based on merit not gender … or race, sexual preference or religion for that matter.

So what can we do tackle the glass ceiling and glass cliff?

It may seem like a “Duh” moment but it’s simple really.

It starts by consciously changing the kind of sexist language that is no longer acceptable in the workplace today. And ladies, this applies to us too. We have adopted sexist language into our own daily vocabulary. Language that encourages the unconscious bias that companies have towards women in the workplace. Language that limits a woman’s role within the workplace. Albeit unconsciously.

When preparing this blog post, we spoke with a number of our female friends in the corporate world and asked them for examples of recent sexist language used in the workplace. Take a look at the infograph below.

These sayings or words may seem somewhat unimportant and petty. Especially when there are bigger issues at hand. But language and how it reflects the role of gender in the workplace, how it can perpetuate the glass ceilings or cause the glass cliffs is crucial. Think about it – “oh it’s that time of the month again” – eluding to the fact that a woman, especially in a senior role, cannot be entrusted to make a sound decision because she is on her period. It’s nonsense. And yet said. So often.

These small changes in the workplace, like changing demeanour and changing language can place everyone – male and female – on a level playing field at an earlier stage in their careers. Right from the get-go. And in the right way.

But language is only the beginning – how about when appointing women in senior leadership positions, you provide them with the support they require to succeed? Whether that means bigger budgets, more time, more flexibility or the support of others within the company. Whatever it is. They need to be set up to succeed. Not set up to fail. Just like a man placed in the same role. Equality is the goal!

Logical. And easy to do. No?

Breaking through the glass ceiling and cliff: Is there a happy ever after?

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There is a great saying: “Teach your daughters to worry less about fitting into glass slippers and more about shattering glass ceilings.”

Accurate. And appropriately thought provoking. But we think it goes beyond that..

There is no doubt that fairytales have their place – they bring a magical quality to our childhood (and to our dreams) – but (more importantly) we need to teach the younger generation about how the real world works. We need to teach them about the importance of culture and diversity in all aspects of life. About equality. About how language impacts the way we see the world.

About the realities of glass ceilings and glass cliffs. And not about the romance of glass slippers.

Through teaching the next generation, we are not only seeking to eradicate inequality at the younger level, we are also bringing awareness to our own language and behaviour; to our own unconscious bias.

And perhaps instead of just wearing our glass slippers, we can take them in hand and use them as tools to break the glass ceilings and glass cliffs. Turn the fairytale into something more empowering. We don’t need a prince to be our “happily ever after”. What we do need is awareness, strength of character and moral aptitude to do better. Be better.

After all – isn’t that what a fairytale is for – showing you how good life could be? Well then, be rewarded for your hard work and strife. Take that darn shoe (glass or otherwise) and walk forward, looking ahead. Your head held high. Because you don’t need to rely on a fairy Godmother to make your dreams come true. You have yourself for that!

Other articles in the female leadership series:

Article 1: FEMALE LEADERS IN THE WORKPLACE – WHY ARE WE SO FEW?
Article 2: FEMALE LEADERS IN THE WORKPLACE – HOW DO WE BREAK THROUGH?
Article 3: FEMALE LEADERS IN THE WORKPLACE – BREAKING THE GLASS SLIPPER, CEILING & CLIFF


About the writer, Alicia Koch, Founder of The Legal Belletrist.

Alicia, an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE, and now a legal writer and researcher, has established The Legal Belletrist to assist companies (in different sectors) to write well-researched articles that speak to each company’s core business, enabling growth and commercialism. 

Click here to visit The Legal Belletrist website.

Email: legalwhizz@gmail.com 

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