Friday, August 11, 2006

Glass ceilings and ankle weights

Laurel Papworth has done the honour of mentioning that she turned up to the FITT for a bit of a laugh. I've gotta say it was a nerve racking gig - and for the record this is roughly what I said.


Tonight our team will be arguing that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist. This is quite probably a dangerous position for a person of my gender to take, but my team members have three important attributes which will assist in our argument. The first is that they are both definitely female.

To argue that something doesn’t exist we first need to define what that thing is. Relying on that most authoritative source – – we have the definition that “The term glass ceiling refers to the observation that top-level management in businesses consist predominantly, if not exclusively, of a certain demographic (i.e. white heterosexual males)”. It is commonly attributed to an article in the Wall Street Journal but was used two years earlier in Adweek – and heck, it does sound like an advertising kind of line.

But the metaphor itself is clearly wrong. The image of a Glass Ceiling is that there is, beneath it, this whole group of women – their faces pressed to the glass like a kid at a lolly shop window – waiting to come in.

The fact is that people do cross that so called barrier. I can think immediately of simple examples like the CEO of my parent company Telecom New Zealand. The second of the important attributes of my co-speakers is that they have also crossed that barrier.

So it is clearly a bad metaphor. It is not an “exclusive” barrier. But what should we make of the suggestion that top-level management come predominantly from this list. We all know the aphorism that Mark Twain incorrectly ascribed to Benjamin Disraeli, that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We expect our opponents will regale you with lots of the third of these at least.

We will hear statistics about the number of women on Boards, but not hear about how Linda Nicholls Chair of Australia Post built her career. We will hear about the gender wage gap including in graduate starting salaries, but not that women still under represent themselves in choosing IT and engineering degrees. We will hear claims of boys clubs and the inaccessibility of networks, but not about the women who build their own networks.

The one thing you will note in all these statistics is that they are couched in the terms that men would regard as success. As our second speaker will tell you, women are redefining “success”. The Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist when you redefine the goal.

The third great attribute of my co-speakers is that they come from a long way away – in a land where people take a great deal more responsibility for their own careers. You will hear from both of them that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist for those who take responsibility for their own careers and their own choices.

In summary, it is our argument that the Glass Ceiling doesn’t exist because of the evidence of successful women. That the ability to be successful is in the control of women – both to define success and plan their path to success.

If women are being held back on the slippery pole of life the analogy that is most suitable is of ankle weights below, not a ceiling above. And women have in their control the ability to remove those weights. To paraphrase Marx “Women of Australia, listen – you have nothing to lose but your chains”.


The fact that we lost is no reflection on the excellent contributions of my team mates. And I should point out that in the debate I said chains at all points in that last paragraph - and the audience let their displeasure be known.

Thanks to FITT for asking me along. Great time was had by all. (And apologies for using the same aphorism in successive bloglets.)

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