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Bry on Business: It’s 2021. Why we still need to write about women in the workplace and the glass ceiling

Cracked glass ceiling
(stock.adobe.com)

As a woman who has been in the workforce for decades, I’m tired of reading about the glass ceiling, how few gains women have made and how more women have left their jobs during COVID-19 because they have disproportionately borne the burden of child care, home schooling and housework.

Why, after all this time, has so little changed despite corporate initiatives, public policy programs and grassroots activism?

The issue has been analyzed and reported on ad nauseam, but progress has been slow and stories of sexual harassment and pay inequity in the workplace are still common. But hope for solutions rather than platitudes springs eternal, and a few weeks ago, I attended a Zoom presentation on a new book, “Glass Half Broken: Shattering the Barriers That Still Hold Women Back at Work,” by Colleen Ammerman, director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School, and Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor.

First, some data. Despite making up the majority of college-educated workers in the United States, women are still dramatically underrepresented in the ranks of business executives. In 2020, only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 companies were run by women. And this was an all-time high. And of those 37 women, only three were women of color.

Women generally attain leadership positions by threading the thinnest of needles — managing the trade-off between competence and likeability. I’ve certainly experienced this challenge in my career.

To my delight, Ammerman and Groysberg offered concrete actions that people can take, structural changes that organizations can make, and leadership roles that men can play in addressing the inequities.

First, men are essential to the success of women. “Because they are in positions of power, authority and influence, they can sidestep some of the backlash that women receive, and their efforts to combat sexism are seen as more legitimate and more favorable,” the authors write.

As I reflect on my own career, two of my best mentors were men who provided me with valuable opportunities to grow my professional expertise.

The challenge is that men often don’t see the barriers that women confront, they’re afraid to “swim against conventional expectations” and they don’t think it’s their place to speak up unless the company empowers it and says it’s important.

Structural changes are harder. Companies need to hire and support diversity in how they integrate new employees, handle professional development and compensate and promote.

For example, it matters how the job description is written, where it’s posted, the way that resumés are reviewed, and the structure of the interview process. Here are some suggestions from the book:

• Clearly stated requirements make qualified women more likely to apply.

• Provide time to look more deeply and not jump at the first candidate.

• Remove information about candidate gender through blind auditions and anonymized resumés in the first screening of resumés.

• Track the proportion of male and female candidates and compare results with the average for your industry as well as with your internal aspirations for diversity.

• Harness appropriate networks that may be outside your normal scope.

• Use a diverse panel of interviewers and a standardized format to ensure that all candidates are held accountable to the same standards.

• Educate interviewers and evaluators about unconscious bias about a woman’s commitment or competence.

In the 1980 movie “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton sang:

“Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living

Barely getting by, it’s all taking and no giving

They just use your mind, and they never give you credit

It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”

Many women, in various stages of their careers and all across the country, still feel this way. “Women’s aspirations shrink and crumble under the pressure of an unequal reality, paths to advancement blocked, contributions that go uncredited and unrewarded, and a profound sense of frustration with such unfair conditions,” the authors write.

I’m an optimist. I believe in change. Ceilings can be raised and broken.

If you’d like to learn more on how to change the current paradigm, the Workforce Equity & Civility Initiative invites you to attend a free community conversation with Ammerman on Zoom from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23. To register, go to bit.ly/3zkMH33.

For more information, email me at bbry@blackbirdv.com.

Barbara Bry of La Jolla was the San Diego City Council member for District 1 from 2016 to 2020. She and her husband, Neil Senturia, are serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com. Email ideas to neil@blackbirdv.com.