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Reflections on the glass ceiling: Why haven't we broken through?

Feb 16, 2014 @ 12:01 am

By Barbara J. Krumsiek

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The term “glass ceiling” came into our lexicon 30 years ago.

It is no surprise to me that this metaphor, which became synonymous with forces blocking women's rise to the top ranks of organizations, was coined by a woman. She was a seasoned magazine editor who had a way with words and a message to convey.

In a 1984 interview, she described the point at which many smart, talented and ambitious women's careers top out in the upper strata of middle management, and she called this stopping point for women the glass ceiling. The term stuck.

After three decades of use, the metaphor has become a cliché. But the underlying concepts of inequity and exclusion associated with the glass ceiling are still evident across most industries.

In our own field, look at women's representation at the top levels of the finance and insurance industries in Fortune 500 companies. Women hold 1.3% of chief executive positions, 17.9% of board seats and 17.6% of executive officer positions, according to Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mission to expand opportunities for women in business.

Even among personal financial advisers, a career path that often allows for self-leadership and financial growth, women are under-represented.

Advisers play a critical role, both strategically and tactically, in helping investors reach their financial goals.

Yet Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that women in this job category held less than one-third — 31.2% — of the financial adviser jobs in 2012.

Moreover, female financial advisers lagged monetarily, with women's earnings at just 61.3% of men's, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It has taken decades for women and men to be represented in the workforce in close-to-equal numbers.

Why, then, are we not seeing more gender parity in the C-suites, at the board tables and at the highest levels of large organizations? It is 2014 and women still ask: Why aren't we there yet?

Discard any notion that women aren't trying hard enough or the time isn't right for women to assume the highest levels of leadership. In my view, the glass ceiling still blocks many qualified women from the highest leadership positions, including board seats.

But the case for dismantling the glass ceiling is still being made.

It has only been a few years since companies, including Calvert Investments Inc., made efforts to quantify the benefit of having women in top leadership roles and on boards.

THE DIVERSITY BOOST

Research studies show that gender equity, which can be a proxy for other diversity, is a key indicator of a company's success, including financial success.

In short, diversity boosts the bottom line.

But why, then, aren't more companies actively cracking their glass ceilings? In my view, they aren't looking inward to their corporate culture to find the reasons for the lack of diversity at the top of their organizations.

Now that we know that diversity can drive financial performance, investing in this organizational analysis seems like the logical next step. This process can be unsettling to many who are comfortable with the status quo. But it is well worth the investment, both to attract and retain top talent, as well as position for competitive advantage.

In our own industry, connecting with women and Millennials will be a key to future growth.

During my 40 years working in corporate America, I have had a front row seat in observing how women fare as they progress through their careers.

A woman's career is divided into three stages, each with its own characteristics and challenges. It is worth noting that some men may find that they relate to these stages as well.

Meritocracy is the first stage. Typically the first decade of a woman's career, meritocracy denotes a corporate system in which talent is recognized, developed and rewarded.

In meritocracy, women's careers develop but frequently begin to fall behind that of their male peers both in opportunities and earnings. Generally, theses gaps are unrelated to actual job performance.

Calvert Investment's 2013 diversity report cites that while women are hired as frequently as men in Standard & Poor's 100 companies, their representation in management roles decreases with each step up the corporate ladder.

The messy middle, the second stage, spans the longest and perhaps the most challenging part of a woman's career. In this stage, a corporation's systemic flaws, especially those related to negativity or even a toxic culture, can cause a woman to lose self-confidence or think that her career opportunities are limited.

It is in this career danger zone that many talented women with high leadership potential drop out of the corporate workforce. I think that the exodus has much to do with the intrinsic flaws associated with the politics and cultures of large organizations.

LEADERSHIP POSITIONS

Leadership is the last stage. Senior leadership is the position to which many career women aspire, and it is still largely closed to women.

Although well-educated and often well-prepared for leadership, women aren't yet at parity with their male counterparts. In fact, at the rate that women are being added to boards, some estimates indicate that it could take until the year 2070 for women to reach parity with men.

Women need tactics to navigate these stages. Based on my personal experiences on my professional journey, I offer women the following advice:

Fill in the “blanks” yourself. Women must find discreet ways to share their strengths with leaders and peers. They must skillfully work high points of their résumés into relevant discussions with leaders and peers. Competent, ambitious women can easily be overlooked or blatantly ignored if they aren't adept at the subtle art of self-promotion. They should find ways to let others know how competent they are.

Think obstacle course instead of corporate ladder. Women should change their thinking about climbing the corporate ladder and instead think of their careers as obstacle courses. A ladder has room for only one climber, while many people can be on an obstacle course at the same time. Women's success on an obstacle course doesn't impede anyone else's. At work, women should be guided by their gut, as well as their intellect. Women should use positive politics whenever necessary. Compassion and competition can coexist when women picture their careers as obstacle courses and not ladders.

Women should declare their lives balanced. Avoid others' advice or judgments on having or not having it all. Women should do what is best for them, own it and declare it. No one can or should dictate how women balance their lives. Not every working woman aspires to a top leadership position. However, the women who do and have the requisite credentials deserve better than corporate America offers.

I suspect that women will ask, “Why aren't we there yet?” until corporations realize that systemic change in their corporate culture is a competitive necessity. Many companies cling to their status quo until hard evidence compels them to change.

Up-to-date research that quantifies the results of diversity, especially data reflecting gains in companies' profits due to women in top leadership positions, will help motivate companies to examine their own flaws and eventually bring down the glass ceiling.

Meanwhile, as working women, we can make a more immediate impact. Regardless of a woman's position or tenure within the financial services industry, I urge each woman to invest in her own career.

Women should constantly build their skills, knowledge and networks; stay well-informed and inform others; directly face challenges and, when necessary, skillfully and respectfully challenge the culture in which they operate.

Finally, make it a point to support other women. Women inside or outside of a company can benefit from the knowledge and support of other women.

Barbara J. Krumsiek is chairman, president and chief executive of Calvert Investments.

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