Smashing the glass ceiling – How can employers help women make it to the top?

The “glass ceiling” facing women in employment is not a new concept and neither is the debate surrounding the pay gap between men and women. That said, few would dispute that the recent figures showing the extent of the difference in pay between men and women working in the financial sector are staggering. A report produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) earlier this month revealed a pay gap between men and women of up to 60% in the financial sector, more than double the 28% figure for the economy as a whole. The report also found that 11% of senior managers in the sector are women, even though women make up approximately half of the workforce.

Although its findings were limited to the financial sector, the report is a clear indication of the fact that there is cause for concern in relation to the status women in the workplace – particularly in the City – and that the glass ceiling is very much in place. Further, it was reported in October last year that an annual structural survey undertaken by the Cranfield School of Management showed that women held only 12% of the board seats at FTSE 100 companies, with 22 FTSE 100 companies having exclusively all-male boards, and that the glass ceiling would continue to hold women back from obtaining equal representation for another four decades.

So, why are women not making it to the top? One of the most commonly cited reasons is in relation to women’s personal priorities and the fact that many are not prepared to make the necessary sacrifices from their family life and responsibilities to progress up the career ladder. The Cranfield School of Management’s report, however, found that women are ambitious for board directorships, with 74% of the female directors sampled from FTSE 350 executive committees articulating an aspiration to be on their main corporate board. Other reasons for women not progressing to the most senior positions include the fact that women are more likely to have long breaks in their career (such as maternity leave, or taking a few years off work to bring up their children until they reach schooling age), which is likely to hold them back. Some women also opt to work part-time or on a flexible basis which, in a number of businesses, remains a barrier to career progression.

Impact on businesses

The impact on businesses of the glass ceiling and of publicised reports such as that of the EHRC is that companies are essentially missing out on the skills and experience of some of their most talented employees who are not given the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Another, perhaps more immediate impact, is that aggrieved employees may use the findings of such reports to demonstrate that there is a culture of discrimination in the company in which they work and that they have been discriminated against by being overlooked for a pay increase, bonus or promotion (for example). It is also expected that there will be an increase in the number of Equal Pay Questionnaires being served on employers – particularly in the financial sector – by women who wish to discover whether they are being paid less than their male counterparts and to challenge any such differences.

Top tips

There are a number of steps companies can take to encourage women to achieve their full potential in the workplace and to help remove the glass ceiling. Here are some top tips:

1. Equal Opportunities Policy (EOP): Make sure you have an EOP in place and that it is drawn to the attention of all your employees, including management right to the top. A policy with sweeping statements about the ideals of the business are not worth the paper they are written on unless an employer is willing to enforce those ideals by operating zero tolerance for those who don’t live up to them and taking disciplinary proceedings where appropriate at all levels.

2. Flexible-working: Have a flexible-working policy in place and ensure that your employees are aware of it and what they need to do to take advantage of it. Provide managers with training and guidance on the flexible-working regime highlighting the more positive impact such policies and practices may have on the business (a more efficient and generally happier workforce, for example). Its not just giving women (and men) the opportunity to work flexibly, however, its ensuring that they are not seen as being less committed and generally second class citizens. That cultural message needs to be managed from the top.

3. Childcare: If your company is a large organisation and you have you the appropriate resources, consider establishing nursery/day care facilities for the children of staff. Such facilities could be open longer than other nurseries and during term breaks so that employees do not have to worry about childcare arrangements during school holidays.

4. Counselling and networking: Offer counselling services to employees who feel they need some assistance in advancing their career (particularly working mothers and those who have recently returned from maternity leave). Also set up and encourage employee networks to provide informal coaching and mentoring. Mentoring programmes by senior management may also be helpful in promoting the sharing of experiences and good practice on career management.

5. Women-only development programmes: Consider setting up a development programme for women aspiring to senior manager positions including training on leadership skills, effective networking and direct access to role models. KPMG launched such a programme as part of its Retaining Talented Women programme, a programme established in 2006 and sponsored by the CEO. It is understood that since that programme began in 2006, the percentage of women in middle-manager grade positions at KPMG had increased by 5% by October 2008.


It is also worth noting that the Equality Bill (published on Friday 24 April 2009), will create a requirement on companies employing more than 250 staff to publish their hourly rates for men and women by 2013. The Bill will also prohibit the use of “gagging clauses” under which employees are required not to reveal details of their pay. These changes are aimed at tackling the pay gap issue and, to some extent, the glass ceiling. Although the UK has not gone as far as Norway where, with effect from 1 January 2008, companies are required by law to appoint a substantial number of women to their management boards (with the potential penalty of closure for publicly listed companies that do not comply), these are major changes which will no doubt have a huge impact on UK companies and which companies should begin to prepare for at an early stage.

Özlem Kulle is an employment and HR lawyer at Fox Williams LLP. She can be contacted on 0207 614 2635 or

Register for updates

Related legal expertise



Portfolio Close
Portfolio list
Title CV Email

Remove All