Barriers to the boardroom: Is there still a glass ceiling?

Glass ceiling
By Ellen Arnison, CA magazine

6 March 2017

In 1923, when Isobel Guthrie became the first chartered accountant in the UK, the term 'glass ceiling' was more than 50 years away from being coined.

It had taken Isobel eight years and the enactment of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act 1919 to be granted admission to the Institute of Accountants and Actuaries, the forerunner to ICAS.

By the end of the 1970s, the metaphor of a 'glass ceiling' as an invisible barrier keeping a group of people, usually women, from rising beyond a certain level was accepted and recognised as a significant issue.

Is there still a glass ceiling?

Ali Kennedy CA, Vice-President of Group Tax at Sophos Group and Executive Director of the International Women’s Forum, said: “I do challenge whether or not the glass ceiling exists - it almost certainly did 20 years ago, but I feel less certain about that now.

“The way I think of it is not as something you get through, it’s more a level of mist that women can’t always see their way through. Women at the top of middle management are quite often asked to report to the board or to join board meetings as contributors.

“I know a lot of women who have got to just below that top level of management, have looked at the behaviours and the culture and thought ‘really, I don’t need this’. I know so many who have stepped off that top level or have joined for short periods of time, hated it, or hated the idea of transforming themselves to fit in and they haven’t wanted to go further.”

Elizabeth Gammie CA, Head of Aberdeen Business School at Robert Gordon University, has just completed research on gender diversity in accountancy practices, due to be published by ICAS this year. She agreed: “My view is that the term ‘glass ceiling’ is now outdated but there are clearly factors at play that prevent women from progressing to the upper echelons of organisations.

"Some of this may be down to the existence of organisational or societal barriers, but there is also the issue of choices and the ability of women in affluent western society to make them. It may be that women feel they have to make certain decisions as their work environment does not accommodate other aspects of their lives, such as family responsibilities.”

My view is that the term ‘glass ceiling’ is now outdated but there are clearly factors at play that prevent women from progressing.

Anne Thorburn, Non-Executive Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee at Diploma, said: “I’ve never experienced the glass ceiling. There probably is one, but it depends on the individual circumstances. I always felt like it was a pretty level playing field and people were judged on merit.

“I think having children has got a lot to do with it. It’s a woman’s choice if she takes some time out or just maybe has a different focus for a number of years. It’s not always that it’s discrimination against women; some women just choose different priorities.”

Anne believes more women will find their way onto boards as companies discover ways to nurture their talent. A broader talent pool is important to ensure businesses can be competitive and play on the world stage.

Breaking on to boards

Ali Kennedy pointed out that women often encounter boards comprised of men with similar backgrounds, ages and experience, who all communicate in a similar way. This poses a problem for someone with a different style. Lone women, for example, find it tough to fit in without having to change their style of operating.

“Part of the problem is that a lot of boards think they have achieved something when they have one woman on the board,” she said. "I’ve heard senior men in business say ‘well, we’ve got one now, so what’s the problem?’”

In her opinion, it takes at least three women to be present on a board for each to be able to contribute in her own style. However, Ali doesn't think quotas are the best way of ensuring more women reach the top levels.

“The best solution is for the men on the board to be our champions and to advocate for us, and for the women on boards to hang in there and do their very best to mentor and support the women coming on behind.”

She takes the view that as more industries are facing disruptive competition, having more diverse and creative minds on a board helps the business to see the challenges and respond to them. In short, diversity at the highest levels is essential to long-term success.

It’s about winning over hearts and minds, so they understand the benefits that diversity will bring to leadership positions.

Rimla Akhtar CA, winner of the One Young CA award in 2016, is the first Muslim woman to sit on the Foootball Association Council and is Chair of the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation. She said: “I do think that there are glass ceilings and that a lot of the issues are due to culture and environment.

“While I’m not really for quotas or targets, I’ve seen in the sport industry that it’s very difficult to create the trigger for change without them. However, in the longer term, we need to work on the pipeline of talent so that we start to see women naturally rising to the top because they’re talented, and they’ve had the right support and have the right skillset.

“It’s about winning over hearts and minds, so they understand the benefits that diversity will bring to leadership positions.”

Rimla is also keen to see diversity promoted by both male colleagues and by the women who have achieved leadership positions. This, she believes, will create sustainable long-term change.

Balancing priorities

On a practical level, the drive for diversity means supporting as many ways of working as possible, something that does happen in many organisations.

While more versatile working practices are established in many organisations, they must come with a change in attitude that welcomes the reasons for this, for all employees, not just for mothers.

An initiative that appears to be making headway in changing attitudes is the 30% Club, which campaigns for a minimum of 30% of board positions at Britain’s largest firms to be held by women. As of December 2016, 27% of Britain’s FTSE 100 boards are female and targets have been revised to 33% for 2020.

ICAS, too, has a role to play in improving the number of women at a senior level. Diversity is a key theme of much of what the organisation does. We run events for women all over the world, support networking and offer training and mentoring at all levels.

The proportion of female directors has a positive and significant impact on the performance of financial companies.

Atholl Duncan, ICAS Executive Director for UK and Global, said: “There’s no excuse for not having diverse boards. It’s very important to our work at ICAS and we support wherever possible.

“It’s also front and centre of our minds and we are working on improving the gender balance on our committees and, for example, whenever we run events, that the boards contain a diverse balance. A diversity of minds, not just through gender, is essential.”

A new report to be published by ICAS shortly, Balancing the board: Directors’ skills and diversity, has found that: “The proportion of female directors has a positive and significant impact on the performance of financial companies.”

It concludes: “More balanced boards may improve the UK’s competitiveness in a global market as greater diversity brings to the board different experiences, perspectives and knowledge and hence may lead to more innovative, productive and profitable, growth-oriented, sustainable businesses.”


Read the full version of this article in the March 2017 edition of CA magazine.

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