Julia Gillard likes the term ‘glass labyrinth’ to describe the challenges faced by women in the workplace. “I think this metaphor is important in capturing the fact that the barriers to female leadership begin from the very start of women’s careers. It’s not just one high, hard glass ceiling at the top.”
The research suggests that the gap between men and women at work begins at the first promotion, at least, and it is for no other reason than gender.
If you accept that merit and ambition are shared pretty equally between the genders, this is baffling.
Often cited explanations are that women are more concerned with family and flexibility, and women are less confident than men, which is why they are less ambitious.
Research and my experience challenges these explanations. A typical young woman entering the workforce is just as ambitious as her male friends and often super confident about their abilities after excelling at university. She will nevertheless be less likely than her male colleagues to enter pay negotiations or promote herself.
The truth is that women are more reticent than men when it comes to money and position because of the social cost that they pay. Repeated studies suggest that women are marked down for negotiating their pay and displaying their ambition.
However, the research suggests that they are rewarded for advocating for others, in fact it’s expected that women look after others and are frowned upon for not doing so. This reflects the prevailing stereotype that women are nurturers and good at collaborating, team leadership and people issues. That’s why they are often overlooked for strategic roles and consigned to process and operational roles based around people.
So, will there ever be gender parity in power and pay? Can these barriers be overcome?
Fortunately, the answer is yes. There are things women can do to assert themselves without seeming unlikeable. It is a matter of recognising the problem and responding appropriately. It’s about changing the script. There will be women who say that they shouldn’t have to bend to an unjust standard and that is true. However, both men and women can benefit from better negotiation techniques and a different script may gently nudge those who make pay and recruitment decisions to challenge their own biases.
Our program, Stepping Up―Women, Innovation, Leadership, is designed for women to shatter the glass labyrinth, not just the glass ceiling. It helps women develop the innovation and leadership skills to chip away at old prejudices from the early stages of their careers so that they are positioned to effortlessly take up higher level leadership positions.