Marilyn Loden on 40 years of the ‘glass ceiling’

Marilyn Loden at the launch of her first book
Photo: Marilyn Loden

Management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling” some 40 years ago. On International Women’s Day, she talks about how little progress has been made in gender equality, and why organisations need to address culture and bias to effect change.

She’s the woman behind one of the most well-used terms to describe gender inequality, but Marilyn Loden never expected the words “glass ceiling” to become quite so pervasive when she first used them in 1978.

“I just used it in a panel discussion I was on about opportunities for women in the workplace,” explains Loden, who has run a successful consulting business for more than 30 years.

“I wanted to deconstruct the title of the discussion, which was ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall’ and focused on ways in which women’s self-image inhibits their advancement.

“I wanted to look at other things that would inhibit, that are not as visible and that we don’t talk about. I didn’t think that much about the term at the time.”

Forty years later, “glass ceiling” continues to dominate headlines and discussions around women’s representation in senior roles and the blockages preventing them from achieving at work.

Loden’s concern is that there is too much acceptance around women not reaching the same senior positions at work as men – that it’s become normalised.

She says: “It’s built into our DNA to think that somehow paying men more is OK because they’re breadwinners, they have families to support.

“We assume a woman in the same position has a husband who has a job too – all this mental calculus goes on and this leads to, in the aggregate, women being paid less than men.”

What’s changed?

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself because in many industries [inequality] is just as bad as it always was,” she says. “And this whole discussion around women’s safety at work and sexual harassment seemed to go underground for decades and now rears its ugly head.”

In fact, Loden believes that men’s worries over whether supporting a female colleague may be misconstrued is holding women back.

“There are a number of reasons why we still have many male executives who are reluctant to mentor women – not just through programmes but informally.

“Part of it is a fear that ‘if I start to advocate for a woman, people will assume we have a personal relationship’. To men who are still worried about things like that I say get over it.

“This unfounded fear is doing a lot of damage to women who have enormous capability and talent, who are being under-leveraged and under-utilised.”

Present but not powerful

In the current political and economic climate, Loden questions why women are better represented but not necessarily better heard.

“When I think about women in organisations today I’d say they are present, but they are not powerful,” she says. “They are there in large numbers but they do not share equally in the power and the decision-making that guides organisations, their policies and their strategies, and that is unfortunate.”

We’re in a period where female leaders are needed more than ever, she argues. “Men and women have different values about things, we see intractable problems differently. What would society be like if 50% of all decisions were made by women?

“We’re deprived of that insight and life experience that informs people’s actions and decisions if we don’t have women on boards and in executive positions in large numbers. If you’re not at the table and you don’t have a voice, then you have to live with the outcomes.”

Role models and representation

On whether legislation is needed to support gender equality, Loden’s position is clear. “Without a legal case behind you, all of this becomes subjective,” she says. “Otherwise, your definition of discrimination is my definition of opportunity. We all have to work to the same set of rules and understanding. And you have to make sure this is monitored, that there is oversight.”

The normalisation of women being paid less than men and being excluded from senior positions is a major factor in inequality, she believes – something she has witnessed in the publication of UK employers’ gender pay gap statistics.

All this mental calculus goes on and this leads to, in the aggregate, women being paid less than men.”

“It’s astonishing how institutionalised we’ve become about having a double standard for pay,” she says, “that it’s OK to pay a woman 80% of what you pay a man.”

Better female role models would help, argues Loden. Too many women who do achieve success at work “trade off” their voice as a woman for that promotion, she claims.

“Often, the senior-most women in organisations don’t identify with women. They’re not advocates for other women. We need the support and sponsorship of men, but also women who are in visible leadership positions not to say things like ‘nothing I’ve done has anything to do with me being a woman’. For many women who have made it, the safe path to the top is to avoid any discussion about being a woman, and that has to stop.”

Taking action

In her consulting role, Loden works with organisations on the cultural “levers” that can help them be inclusive towards all groups. Phase one considers senior leadership behaviour, strategic planning and design, and communication.

In the next phase, organisations need to ensure that their HR practices and systems align with these inclusive attitudes. She says: “Are your policies really set up to support all of your employees, or do some people derive more benefit than others based on their social identities?”

Performance management and progression are pinch points for equality, she adds.

“The way we evaluate performance is a big one. All of it is still subjective, and in many cases when assessing for leadership potential it comes down to style issues rather than results, and it shouldn’t,” says Loden.

“If you have two candidates for a big job – one comes from central casting and he’s an ex-athlete versus a woman who has a softer voice, who is not as assertive and is more participative, that’s a different style.”

But is it still a glass ceiling today? “In some places there are ‘holes’ in that ceiling, a small window, but in others it’s almost as though it has been reinforced,” she laughs.

The tide may be turning, however, and a less masculine leadership style is beginning to prevail. “I do think though that the autocratic style of leadership that we’ve come to accept, and that many men are comfortable with, does not produce innovation.”

She concludes: “Today, it’s people who can lead through other people who are more successful and more likely to motivate people that work for them.”

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