Is there still a glass ceiling for women in Britain?
By news editor, on 15 February 2013
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a professor. Was the professor a woman or a man? This was a question asked by UCL head of Equality and Diversity Sarah Guise during a debate held by the UCL Union Debating Society on 4 February.
She was asking the question to bring up the issue of gender stereotypes in British society today. Such stereotypes not only affect our careers as students and professionals not only does it, but also influence our conduct on a day-to-day basis.
On the panel were six distinguished speakers debating whether the concept of a glass ceiling is still applicable in Britain today.
The debate follows on from the recent publication of the 2011 Davies Report, commissioned by the government to report on the state of female leadership on boards, which labelled the pace of change “not good enough”.
Proposing that there is a glass ceiling were Sarah Guise, Fiona Hotston Moore, senior corporate partner at Reeves Accountants, and Sarah Veale CBE, head of the Equality and Employment Rights Department at the Trades Union Congress.
Arguing against the motion were Emma Clark, partner at professional services firm Abbiss Cadres, the successful entrepreneur and author Sahar Hashemi OBE and Apprentice star and business consultant Katie Hopkins.
The proposers outlined in detail the low proportion of women in leadership positions across a wide scope of professions, from business to academia.
Fiona Hotston Moore highlighted how even the public sector – which is better than the private sector– has only 13% of top positions across 11 sectors filled by women.
The reason, according to Fiona, is conscious and unconscious biases. Because of this, she argued that the system is not a meritocracy and quotas are a viable option.
Sarah Guise also highlighted a number of imbalanced statistics, and spoke about her belief that the glass ceiling is a historical artifact, which has developed as women have not been envisaged in executive roles.
According to Sarah, women have to be likeable as well as competent to get noticed, as gender stereotypes cumulatively deter women from leadership roles.
This was a claim that was fiercely contested by the opposition side. All three have succeeded in a variety of fields, and claimed that they had never felt that they had failed or been ignored due to their gender.
Sahar Hashemi didn’t deny the under-representation of women, but she thinks that today women can succeed or fail based on their own hard work or lack of it.
She highlighted technological innovations in the workplace, which are increasingly enabling women to work flexibly when they have children.
Katie Hopkins brought up an interesting point: “I’m living proof that you don’t have to be liked to get ahead. I’m probably the most disliked person in this room.”
During the floor speeches, one student rebutted this point, saying that, in fact, Katie is very much liked by the British public for her unique style and ability to speak her mind. This is a debate that will have to be organised for another day.
Rather than looking at the issue from the top down, Sarah Veale argued that this is a pipeline issue.
In this country, you can request flexible working hours, but this is not a legal right. For many women who are expected to look after their children, they need more support and assistance from an earlier stage to prevent them from dropping off their career ladders.
Katie Hopkins and Emma Clark both emphasised that women who choose to have families have to make sacrifices. We need to ask the extent to which this constitutes the responsibility not only of firms, but also society.
Emma Clark accepted that women are under-represented, but highlighted changes to employment law – such as shared parental law, projected to come into force in 2015 – as a sign that women are appreciated today as a part of the workforce.
And she pointed to the high number of female entrepreneurs as a sign that those who are excluded are succeeding in setting up their own firms. For Emma, the glass ceiling is no longer there because, as a whole, British society welcomes women’s achievements.
The proposition did make convincing points about enduring gender stereotypes in society, and the pipeline issues. They won the vote, with 67 voting for the motion, 22 voting against, and 38 in abstention.
It should be said that no vote was taken beforehand, so we don’t know whether there was a swing in opinion. But, nonetheless, the opposing side strongly believe that things are changing for the better.
For me, this is such an important subject because it encourages us to think about the way we treat and speak about men and women in everyday life, and how what we think are non-issues may in fact be very important.
This may have been the Debating Society’s first all-female panel in its history. I don’t see that as particularly positive or negative. What I do hope is that in the future we will see all-women panels, as we see all-men panels, for issues beyond this one.