Smashing the glass ceiling

Smashing the Glass Ceiling

Oct 06, 2022

Coined in the seventies, the term ‘the glass ceiling’ has become a mainstay of discourse on gender equality in the boardroom, but over 40 years on, have we even come close to breaking it? Liz Riley reports

It was during her speech at the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York City that Marilyn Loden, the American feminist author, and workplace diversity advocate, coined the phrase ‘the glass ceiling’.

Forty-four years on, the term is still relevant—outliving Loden, who died in early August 2022. “I thought I would be finished with this by the end of my lifetime, but I won’t be,” Loden said in an interview with The Washington Post in March 2018.

“I’m hoping, if it outlives me, it will [become] an antiquated phrase. People will say, ‘There was a time when there was a glass ceiling’.” So, what is the glass ceiling—and how relevant is it to the workplace of today?

Defining the glass ceiling

The ‘glass ceiling’ is a metaphor describing the barrier preventing women from rising beyond a certain level in their profession. They have a clear view of what is beyond their reach, but they can’t break through to the other side.

“There are two aspects to the glass ceiling,” explains Louise Molloy, Director of Luminosity Consulting, and an executive and team coach specialising in leadership development. “Well recognised are the limits organisations, culture, society, and behavioural norms, put on women.

“It is now also recognised that there are limits that we, as women in the workplace, might inadvertently put on ourselves. We do this through the options we advocate for, how we position ourselves, and the career decisions we make. To really break the ceiling, we need to work on both.”

With gender pay gap reporting coming into effect this year, you might think that the end to the glass ceiling is surely near. According to a recent report by the European Commission, however, the number of women in Ireland holding senior management positions stood at just 28.8 percent in 2020, up from 15.3 percent five years prior.

Ireland has made “excellent progress” on gender equality, the report states, but not everyone agrees. “While progress has been made in Ireland, women here are still substantially underrepresented in senior roles and decision-making spaces,” says Emma DeSouza, Women’s Leadership Coordinator with the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

“According to the latest CSO Gender Balance in Business Survey, in 2021, only 22 percent of the members of Boards of Directors in Ireland were female, one in eight CEOs in large enterprises in Ireland were women, and men accounted for 86 percent of Board Chairpersons.”

While Chartered Accountants Ireland (the Institute) currently has 42.6 percent female membership overall, the 24-44 age group has an average 51 percent female membership, showing clear progress among the younger generations of Chartered Accountants.

Of the 1,686 people who have listed their job descriptions and identify as ‘senior executive’, however, just 287 of women.

“I think we have made progress, but progress is not necessarily good enough”, says Sinead Donovan, Chair of Grant Thornton, and Deputy President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, “The end destination is to break through the glass ceiling. It is distressing that we are not there yet. Every year we celebrate that we are getting closer to breaking it. Sometimes, I wonder if that is a helpful narrative or not.

“At the end of the day, if the intake to our profession is more than 50 percent female—and has been more than 50 percent for several years—and the population is more than 50 percent female, well, then we shouldn’t be celebrating anything until we are at that 50 percent mark.”

Progress in the profession

Eileen Woodworth became the first woman to be admitted to the Institute in 1925, but progress in the years that followed was slow. Professor Patricia Barker, Lecturer of Business Ethics at Dublin City University, was the 20th woman admitted to the Institute—48 years after Woodworth.

The issues preventing women from entering the profession didn’t stop at admittance. “Most people couldn’t conceive of a woman being a Chartered Accountant,” says Barker.

“I was regularly addressed as a man with the name, ‘Mr Patrick McCann’. There were no women’s bathrooms for members in the Institute at Fitzwilliam Place. I had to use the librarian’s loo. Miss Jenkins was not pleased.”

When she “pitched up to conduct the audit”, clients assumed she was the comptometer operator, Barker recalls. “There have only been two women presidents of Chartered Accountants Ireland since its inception, Margaret Downes in 1983 and Shauna Greely in 2017—a wide 34-year gap.”

This gap is closing, however. Sinead Donovan will take the reins as the Institute’s President in 2023. “It is an improvement, but one from a disgraceful base,” says Donovan. “It is shocking that it has taken this long.

“However, I think we are in a good place now for the future. It’s key to look at the movement [the Institute has] made on the composition of Council, which is currently sitting at a 47/53 percent split. We should maintain those numbers and aim for at least a 40/60 percent split for Council officers going forward.”

Former Institute President Shauna Greely, who is currently Chair of the Institute’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, also feels positive about the future. “Lots has been achieved in the past 50 years with gender representation in the profession,” says Greely.

“We have gone from 20 female members 50 years ago to 13,000 today. It is hugely important to have female role models, and we have many. Female graduates are encouraged to become Chartered Accountants, and female members can aspire to what others have achieved before them.”

Diversity and inclusion

It is now common for organisations to have initiatives and strategies specifically aimed at diversifying the employee pool. Molloy thinks this is helping women to find equity in the workplace. “Industry-level initiatives such as the 30% Club and Women in Finance and Tech are great for spotlighting the issue at a macro level,” Molloy says.

At a company level, employee resource groups such as Meta’s ‘Women@’ initiative also help to create a space for women to share their experiences and build alliances, Molloy adds. “Through specialist sessions on topics such as how to communicate impactfully about your work and ambitions and how to network strategically, women learn to empower themselves,” she says.

“Many of the groups I work with have men as well, both as champions of diversity and attendees. These initiatives tend to be hugely successful as they are self-empowering and drive change from within.”

Like Molloy, Donovan feels that support from both women and men is needed in any effort to help women get ahead. “We need to call it out. It cannot be down to women to ask about female representation on committees,” she says.

“It upsets and annoys me, and I know it annoys the lads when I’m the one who has to say it, when we all know it shouldn’t have to be me. The whole board should think about the diversity of the organisation.”

Ultimately, Donovan believes that ‘Gen Z’ (the next generation of professionals, born between 1997 and 2012) could be the ones to pave the way for true workplace equality.

“I think they will flip a switch, but, whether it’s a switch for gender equality, I don’t know. I think equality and diversity will be a by-product of their way of working. Because of Gen Z, working will become more virtual, less about relationships and more about deliverables,” she says.

“They are just not into developing relationships in the way that we were. That should mean the output will be more diverse, but I don’t think that’s the driving force. They’ll ask if it makes their work-life balance better or gives them space to do what they want to do. That will be their driving force rather than ticking diversity boxes.”

Barker agrees, saying it will be interesting to see “if women retain the foothold they have achieved” as we move into new models of working, incorporating working remotely and a potential drop in employment opportunities “as inflation rises”.

Breaking the glass ceiling

As for actually breaking the glass ceiling, Donovan doesn’t hold out much hope. “I don’t think we will ever, as a country and a culture, waiver from the fact that women ‘need’ to stay at home to rear children or take time out from their careers to have children,” she says.

“Whilst that is there, I think it will always be a barrier to equity. I think if we get to 40/60 at the top levels of the profession, that might be where we cap out. We will never have enough momentum to enable the progression needed to achieve parity. Does a break from work impact a woman’s career? It does. It absolutely does. This will only be corrected when it becomes accepted and ‘the norm’ for men to take a gap to share in the family responsibilities.”

Barker is, however, a little more optimistic: “It is not so much a question of breaking through the glass ceiling—it’s more a question of women defining the landscape of the ceiling once they get up there”.

This article was first published by Chartered Accountants Ireland at the following link: