Cultural Barriers that Create the Glass Ceiling

SpeakingWhileFemaleI was invigorated by a recent New York Times article, “Speaking While Female” written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.   It is a superb example of why the problem of ‘not enough women in upper management and the Board Room’ hasn’t been solved in the last 30 years as it should have been. Finally, people recognize the problem – now it can be fixed!

The article summarizes very recent research that proves that when men speak, people (both men and women) listen. When a woman speaks, “she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive!” When men say almost the same thing, their ideas are appreciated. New studies, undertaken at Yale and at the University of Texas, are described in the article. The results conclusively confirm this gender bias.

As I read the article, I was reminded of an effort I led almost 30 years ago after my firm merged with KPMG (then Peat Marwick Mitchell). The goal of the effort was to help KPMG make greater strides in developing women as Partners. Women were not making Partner in the percentages they should have, given the average time for men to achieve Partner status.

Armed with a White Paper describing the situation, possible change initiatives, and the benefits of making changes to accelerate the professional development of women into partners at the firm, several male senior partners and I made a presentation to the Human Resource Director. He listened to our pitch politely, then dashed our hopes for any changes when he said, “You are wrong; we don’t need to make any changes. Now that we proactively seek out women as new hires, it is only a matter of time until they start making partner in the same percentages as men.”

The HR Director was wrong; it didn’t happen. The Accounting profession has some of the lowest rates for women at the top of any profession (an average of 20% for the four largest firms), despite the fact that the number of women new hires has averaged over 50% for decades. To their credit in the last ten years, KPMG has moved to vigorously change their percentages and now has aggressive programs to enhance career growth for women.

It still isn’t enough in the accounting profession, banking, law or in most industries. Women are in the workforce at almost equal numbers as men; they are in high percentages at middle management, but their numbers are abysmal in upper management, the C-Suite and in the Boardroom.

The problem is the culture and the environment. Nothing has been done to change it, or to even recognize that as the problem, until very recently. This article is the first recognition of the culture and environment problem I have seen, not only in accounting but for any industry.

We have to change the culture in business for women to make greater progress in reaching the top and succeeding in those positions. Promoting more women and selecting more women for Boards is a good step, as suggested in the article, but not good enough. True integration and equality of women in the workplace won’t happen until cultural issues are recognized as the problem, addressed, and solutions developed in each industry and within individual organizations.

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