The Glass Ceiling Conundrum: Does HR Have a Role?

By Jane Terepocki, CHRP

The more things change the more they stay the same.

The Economist magazine recently stated that female economic empowerment is the most profound social change of our times. Globally, women are getting advanced degrees at higher rates than ever before and are the heads of state for 17 countries around the world.  Moreover, within the business realm, there are increasing numbers of women in middle management.

Despite all these advances, there are very few female CEOs—as evidenced by a recent Business in Vancouver magazine feature outlining the top 100 highest earning companies in British Columbia.  Only four out of the 100 CEOs were female.

In spite of the current state of female empowerment women are still not equal players in the top positions of power; in fact they are a minority.  Why is this and can HR help break the glass ceiling?

Pinning down one reason for the inequality or fixing the problem is akin to eating an elephant in one bite.  Ultimately there is no magic formula to solve this complex issue. Sometimes the best approaches are time-tested and true:  re-examine what HR is currently doing and do it better, look at inclusive methods to create strategy and reexamine human traits and tendencies.  Exploring the ideas of some of the top minds in business also helps us to arrive at some viable approaches.

The Confidence Issue
A current top business book, The Confidence Code,  by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman examines the difference between men and women from both anecdotal and scientific perspectives, as well as why women have not broken through the glass ceiling in mass numbers.  Their research finds that women have the capability, but lack confidence in spite of increased levels of responsibility; this lack of confidence is why they do not traditionally succeed in reaching CEO positions.

The authors share an example of an orchestra where women were not hired as often as men.  An experiment was conducted whereby the applicants interviewed were not visible and only their musical ability could be heard. This resulted in women and men being hired in equal numbers. (This would be an interesting experiment in the recruitment departments.) That such a small, simple change can yield such significant results veritably begs the experiment to be tested in recruitment departments.

Confidence Boosting is Key
On the practical side, Kay and Shipman list a few confidence boosters that any employee can practice.  Below is a list of small game changers, micro confidence boosters—and a caveat.

  • Fail fast—Small failures are key to confidence;
  • Leave the comfort zone—A ship is not built to stay in the harbour;
  • When in doubt, act—Nothing builds confidence like taking action;
  • Don’t ruminate, rewire—reframe negativity to improve efficiency and balance;
  • Take compliments and own accomplishments—keep it simple and honest (a.k.a. “Thank you, I appreciate that.”);
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat—Practice makes perfect;
  • Speak up—Women speak 75 per cent less when men are in the majority;
  • Think small—When faced with something daunting, a single step is a start;
  • Be grateful—Simply saying “Thank you” is key to optimism and happiness;
  • Meditate—This increases ability to remain calm, control emotions, be clear and calm about your goals;
  • Sleep, move, share—Get enough sleep, exercise and spend time with friends;
  • Practice power positions—Sit up straight.  Abs in chin up.  Try nodding your head. Always sit at the table; and
  • Pass it on—Encourage a colleague to take action.

As for the caveat, here is a ‘booster’  to avoid—fake it until you make it. Confidence springs from genuine accomplishment and work. In short, women have to be heard and if we want to lead we have to act; this is the power of confidence.

A New Look at Confidence
Kay and Shipman posit that confidence in women looks different than men, as women:

  • Don’t always have to speak first;
  • Can rely on colleagues to help make our point;
  • Can pass credit around and we can avoid alienating potential enemies;
  • Can speak calmly but carry a smart message that will be heard— confidence can even be quiet; and
  • Can display vulnerability and question our decisions.  Reviewing our decisions with an eye to improvement is a strength as is admitting mistakes.

The authors stress that this last point is not to be confused with ruminating for days over decisions already made. This is not confidence. If a single point emerges as a mantra throughout The Confidence Code, it is s this— make decisions and act. As evidenced at the recent 2014 HRMA Conference+Tradeshow, it is a mantra and mode of being that continues to serve plenary speaker Nilofer Merchant exceedingly well.

The Jane Bond of Innovation
Having worked for the likes of Apple and Adobe before striking out launch more than 100 products netting $18 billion in sales, Merchant has been dubbed a visionary by CNBC—and listed as the number one person most likely to influence the future of management.

Her thinking has the potential to break the glass ceiling for good, calling upon the recognition of every individual’s potential to harness their ‘onlyness’ to greater purpose and profit. Speaking at the HRMA conference, Merchant outlined some of her innovative ideas approaching strategy; her most important contribution to this discussion is the movement from  “me to we” in creating effective strategy.

“The future is not created. The future is co-created.” That central thesis behind her first 2010 management book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategies, has now become a recognized truth across Fortune 500s and small to medium sized business alike.  Simply put, businesses can no longer afford organizational divisiveness if they are to thrive.

Merchant is part of an emerging group of practical, experienced professionals who have adopted the shared value networks and collaborative role definitions necessary for knowledge-based workers to succeed in team efforts in our current and future innovative business environment.   The  silos and constraints of traditional business organizations will not survive the challenges of the next decade and Merchant’s latest book, 11 Rules for Creating Value In #SocialEra, provides a step by step manual to not only survive the future but excel.

HR’s Role In Breaking the Glass
In Nancy R. Lockwood’s article, “The Glass Ceiling:  Domestic and International Issues” she address areas where HR is able to affect change with employer policies and practice.

Human resource professionals have a significant part to play—through organizational culture, workplace policies and practices, change management and workforce education—to develop women leaders who will break down gender-based barriers.  These barriers run the gamut from gender stereotypes to preferred leadership styles to tokenism in the high managerial ranks.  The following are some areas where HR can make a real difference.

  • Examine organizational culture by looking for barriers;
  • Drive change through management;
  • Foster inclusion which includes mentoring;
  • Educate and support women in career development;
  • Measure for change – track women’s training throughout the organization;
  • Review company policies to make sure they are fair and inclusive; and
  • Explore reasons why women leave the company.

HR is uniquely placed to affect change in organizations. Women represent a relatively untapped source of talent for leadership in the workplace. We can influence strategies in the C suite, provide training that will increase confidence in employees and help guide and change policies and procedures.  Perhaps in the future in BC will have more than four female CEO’S in their top 100 earnings companies.

Once these simple strategies and formulas are in place there is no reason why other minorities who face impenetrable barriers can not break through their own “glass ceilings” using the same simple approaches.  Thus the route to advancement lies within the HR arena to balance economic advancement with positions of power.

Jane Terepocki, CHRP is a specialist in the areas of recruitment and training with a passion for harnessing the powers of talent, culture and leadership.

(PeopleTalk Fall 2014)

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