Breaking Barriers

A call for pragmatic feminism in the workplace

27 Mar 2017, Fanny Siltberg

Breaking Barriers

Nearly thirty years ago, Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob entered the media industry together. As the years passed, they became increasingly perplexed by how the number of women around them seemed to decrease with every step they climbed on the career ladder. Having worked their way up to being CTO and CEO respectively of two global media companies, they figured it was time to address the issue. The result is the book ‘The Glass Wall: Success Strategies For Women at Work - and Businesses that Mean Business’, which was published in December 2016. The LINK met up with the two authors in conjunction with their public lecture at the London School of Economics to learn more.

"I have worked for a long time and I have only ever worked for one woman, I have predominantly worked for men. I still go to lots of meetings where I am the only woman and I still go to a lot of meetings where, because I am the only woman, people presume that I work for a man.”

These are the words of Kathryn Jacob and according to her, they exemplify a direct effect of the invisible barrier to gender equality in the workplace that she and Sue Unerman have chosen to call “The Glass Wall”. They describe it as a combination of company culture and behaviour that, as time goes by, restricts women’s career prospects.

“The glass wall are those meetings that you suddenly stop getting invited to, or the email trails that your name mysteriously gets dropped off while everyone else still seems to be on it. It’s the thing of where men and women can see each other clearly through the glass wall, but can’t understand what the other person is saying,” Jacob says.

Jacob explains that this barrier can take many shapes. Often, it is a result of a company culture that is askew, but even more often women restrict their own opportunities by thinking advancement is off limits to them, or they don’t want to be perceived as “pushy” by their peers.

According to Jacob and Unerman, many companies make an effort to recruit 50/50 but end up being predominantly male anyway. This, they suggest, is a direct effect of organisations not actively thinking about how to retain female talent and how to change culture in a way that enables women to fulfil their potential in the workplace. For the individual this is of course a great tragedy, but for the company it is also a financial failure.

“We’re not only writing this book only for the sake of women, it is also because there are proven statistics that mixed boards generate better profit. So it’s a really stupid thing to do, to lose women in the workplace,” Jacob continues.

The book itself is an example of what Unerman calls “pragmatic feminism” and consists of 41 case studies based on the many interviews the pair conducted as a foundation for the book. In short, they describe 41 problematic situations any woman is likely to fi nd herself in at some point during her career, and equally many ways to deal with them. Since the book is also aimed towards organisations, each case contains strategies and tips on how management can handle similar situations in order to retain female talent within their companies. This far, Unerman and Jacob are happy that they chose this straightforward approach.

“Brilliantly, a number of women have now approached us saying that they’ve read the book, tried some of the techniques and got themselves a pay rise, got themselves a new job or got themselves out of a situation that made them unhappy,“ Unerman explains.

The strategies are many and range from small practical measures - such as sitting in the eye line of the most senior person in a meeting in order to make sure to catch their attention - to wider habit changes - such as taking opportunities to show off achievements, which, according to Unerman and Kathryn, women generally speaking are very reluctant to do.

“Some people seem to think that if they sit and do really brilliant work in the corner, eventually someone is going to come along and say ‘oh, you have been sitting there, not talking about how well you’re doing for so long and now I have suddenly realised how brilliant you are!’ These things don’t happen,” Jacob says.

Instead, she explains, a better approach is to simply forward the great feedback you got from a client to your manager with a simple comment along the lines of ‘I thought you might like to see this, in case you meet the CEO of this or that company’, or ‘here’s some great news for the marketing director, I know you see him quite often’. In this way, Jacob goes on, one can highlight one’s achievements without having to barge into your manager’s office beating your own drum all the time.

A final point that both Unerman and Jacob keep coming back to, is to avoid the habit of confusing likeability with success.

“Women confuse success at work with them being liked and actually, it is a dreadful thing to say but you don’t go to work in order to be liked,” Jacob explains.

“Your workplace employed you because you are qualified and because they think you can deliver for them, not because you are a really nice girl and smiley,” she says.

In the end, it comes down to separating your professional persona from your private self and come to the realisation that the success of the former doesn’t dictate the value of the latter.

“You are more than your work, no one has ever loved you for the fact that you write a cracking board report. It’s two different things,” Jacob tells The Link.

Breaking the Glass Wall draws on Unerman and Jacob’s own experience in male-dominated businesses, as well as over a hundred interviews with both men and women. The book provides clear, smart and easy-to-apply strategies for success. From unlocking ambition and developing resilience to nurturing creativity and getting noticed, these are the skills that everyone needs to learn to help break down that wall and create better workplaces for all.

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