Is the glass ceiling still an obstacle?

Kirstie Keate, Kettlemag, glass ceiling
Written by kirstiekeate

The glass ceiling has been a phrase touted since the 80’s when Thatcher was Prime Minister. The heady days of boom time economy and yuppies. Back then women were proving themselves in careers traditionally dominated by men, particularly in the City. But whilst performing as well as, or better than their male counterparts, weren’t getting the promotions, bonuses or salaries of their male colleagues because of outright discrimination.

And they still aren’t, but the picture now isn’t as black and white as it used to be.

Whilst it’s still an undeniable fact that men are paid more than women as outlined in the graph below, it’s not as straight forward gender discrimination. As men and women get older, the pay gap widens and it starts to widen at roughly 25-30, the age when most women start having families, and work gets just that bit more difficult.


And that is the problem. Yes, women, on average, get paid less than men a fair amount less than men, but that’s the average across the workforce. Whilst they are paid less than men from the very beginning, the gulf only really starts to widen when women start having children.

Why the ceiling on women’s wages?

The reality is, there are many more factors at work here. Let’s face it, if employers really felt they could get away with paying 40 year old women in the same job with the same skills as a 40 year old man the current difference in salary of £15,500 less, wouldn’t every profit line savvy boss in the country be falling over themselves to get hold of this pool of cheap labour? There wouldn’t be a woman in the country without a job.

Firstly, whilst women’s salaries start to level off at the age they start having children, simply pointing the finger at bosses saying they won’t pay or employ women in good jobs for fear they will run off and have babies is, although sadly one element, it’s a decreasing one.

There’s a famous phrase, ‘everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid’, and it pretty adequately explains what’s going on here. Women’s productivity in the workplace is being assessed on male standards. Who can work late and who has to rush out the door at 5pm to pick up the children. Who turns up every day with leave booked well in advance, and who calls in taking ad hoc days off because the 3 year threw up last night and so nursery won’t let him back in for 48 hours. Who was here all last year, and who had a year off for maternity leave. 

I’m not disputing that men are increasingly taking on an ever increasing share of child care, but at the end of the day, generally, the bulk of it falls on mothers, and certainly pregnancy and labour is something that’s exclusively a women’s domain. And it’s this that is increasingly affecting salary and promotion prospects rather than the bad old days of straight forward discrimination.

Employees are judged on how reliable you are, how wide awake and efficient you are when your there (regardless of your dear offspring keeping you up all night because they’re teething), how willing you are to get in early or work late, and many other things, that are quite simply easier if you don’t have children and a home to worry about.

Now, this isn’t to say women can’t be equally as committed or hard working with a family. But, as I’ve previously argued here, women who have childcare responsibilities need a different working landscape to other employees. They need flexibility with working hours, and working location.

Getting back to work

This isn’t the only problem, for many mother’s it’s getting back into work they’re qualified for after a few years off raising children. Whilst the law says that you are entitled to apply for part time or altered working patterns if you have any caring responsibilities once you have been employed for six months, there’s no onus on an employer to look into employing someone with this pattern on initial recruitment. Therefore, many women who don’t want to, or more often can’t because of school hours and holidays, work full time, have no choice but to look for part time roles, which, more often than not, are in positions far below their skill set and their earning potential.

Take for example a woman I met the other week. Prior to having children, she’d been a paediatric surgeon. Now, she’s a part-time GP because working practises wouldn’t give her the time or flexibility to parent. Now, I know from experience the marvellous job GP’s do, but this is a highly qualified woman who has gone from improving, and sometimes saving, the lives of children, to diagnosing sore throats and the flu. How is that in the best interests of anyone, let alone her salary or career prospects?

And, ultimately, not being able to work full time itself deepens the problem, if you are only working part time, you are only gaining part of the experience that full time colleagues get, part of the opportunities. All the things that add toward your promotion prospects are just not as available.

There’s also the bigger economic argument. Part time workers are, by default, earning part time wages, reducing tax income to the treasury. And part time low paid jobs, exacerbates the problem. Not only this, but low wages, particularly in the case of sinlge mothers, mean they’re more likely to rely on benefits.

Glass ceiling implies that women can only get so far because of prejudice, but that’s not the problem so much anymore, although of course there are pockets of discrimination preventing women from progressing. The reality is that many women are getting so far, then actually going backwards. It’s not a ceiling, it’s a diversion. A diversion that instead of taking you to your dream destination of Tahiti, is taking you to an industrial wasteland in Siberia.

More and more, the problem women have is that progression is inhibited by archaic, restrictive working practices that are unnecessary, bad for women, bad for business, bad for the economy and bad for society overall.

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