· 4 min read · Features

Dismantling the glass ceiling is slow, but organisations can speed things up


At the end of the 1990s, the first woman chief executive was appointed at a FTSE 100 firm and it seemed reasonable to expect this breakthrough would create a good deal of change for other women. It was perhaps a simplistic view – rather like expecting that Margaret Thatcher’s appointment as the first woman prime minister would then remove all barriers for women in politics.

The rate of progress for women in business has been, and continues to be, slow; a point illustrated by the ongoing debate about the limited numbers of women at board level (it remains rare to find women as either non-executive or executive directors).

These issues are also relevant beyond the UK - elsewhere in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic, where CalSTRS (California State Teachers' Retirement System), for example, one of the largest pension funds, recently criticised Facebook over the lack of women at board level.

Our research looked at what it is that continues to slow down women's progress and which factors help build careers.

We would like to share findings from three areas and highlight what needs to change in order to improve women's progress. First, we talk about 'who' are the people who support individual careers; a second area is 'leadership style' and what this means for individuals and for organisations. The final section is 'what to do?' - with regard to actions that organisations could take.

Who helps women to build their career?

A good deal has been written about career development, but we believe the area that has been overlooked by organisations is how other people (such as the boss) support individual women.

The research suggests - as shown in the diagram (left) - that family and friends are also important. Maybe that is not so surprising and we can probably all recall times when we have turned to friends or family for some career advice.

Other career 'helpers' are within the workplace and nearly eight out of 10 women in our survey highlight the role of their colleagues in offering career support. Almost all women - nine out of 10 - say this also is true for their boss. It is important news. There are a number of implications of these findings - for example, do organisations:

Understand the critical role of the line manager and include this in arrangements for existing career development structures?

Ensure managers have the right skills for this role? Sessions such as 'the manager as coach or mentor' or as 'career coach' could be included in all executive learning and development programmes

Include women's colleagues in the career development process and review any support they need in order to help them with this role?

Provide sufficient career advice to women at all levels and all stages of their career? Our research indicates that while early career opportunities are crucial, this is an area where women often miss out. One issue is that women with young families are sometimes stereotyped as not being interested in career progression

Make women aware of the role models at more senior levels who would be willing to provide support, advice and guidance?

Leadership style

Overall, the women in our study at Ashridge prefer a more 'inclusive' style of leadership. We know from this and other studies that variety of style contributes towards better decision-making and performance. One female leader we interviewed says her leadership style is 'an iron fist in a velvet glove'. It is a vivid image, which she said was often mistaken by male colleagues early in their work relationship as being a 'soft' leadership style. These same colleagues soon realised their error when tough situations arose and decisions needed to be made.

Organisations that value different approaches and have a broader appreciation and awareness of what leadership effectiveness looks like, are ahead of the game with regard to diversity issues.

Another difficulty is about helping women to develop an authentic leadership style - it is particularly hard for women to find their own leadership style when they are in a minority. Finding the right approach takes time - and more support with these issues early on in women's careers would help. In our survey, women mentioned all of the following approaches as useful:

development workshops


executive coaching


job-shadowing more senior colleagues

Advice to organisations

One reason why the number of women at senior levels is changing so slowly is the limited career support available in some organisations, along with issues such as leadership style (mentioned above) and early career assignments (see next paragraph). Creating a culture that is women-friendly or even family-friendly is something we know makes a difference, yet the approach to this topic in many organisations is informal and ad hoc - one example is where part-time or flexi-working options decisions are left to individual managers. A centralised, strategic approach would be much better. A focus on early career opportunities would also help many women. Often, assignments, project groups and/or membership of action groups are allocated informally.

Such opportunities invariably act as career 'multipliers' and often help individuals stand out during the early stages of their career but, as mentioned earlier, we know women are less likely to have such opportunities, compared with their male colleagues.

As well as a good infrastructure, we also heard many times about what might be described as a networking paradox. Personal contacts and networking are important and yet women managers feel excluded from these important groups.

What needs to change? Our advice, based on our research, is summarised in the box, 'What makes a difference for women in business'. If more organisations reviewed these issues, then we would see greater change. Some points are not new. For example, appointing a board-level champion for diversity makes progress more likely, not least because it demonstrates to the business how important these issues are. A senior appointment also means progress reports will be made at senior business meetings, and sufficient staff and resources allocated. A number of assumptions continue to be made about women - and a few examples are shown below.

Limiting assumptions about women

1Women with children don't want to be given international assignments

2 A woman may be a good manager, but this needs to be demonstrated - whereas a man is assumed to be a good manager, until he demonstrates otherwise

3Women who work part-time are not interested in career progression

We believe there could be more focus on improving career development structures, systems and support for women. The leadership programmes for women at Johnson & Johnson and at Novo Nordisk are good examples of a formal process to help women senior managers learn those key skills they need to propel their career up to director level.

So, what are the implications of our research for HR? If every HR director thought about ways their organisation could become a diversity champion - to identify issues that could make a difference - then we might see major change over the next five years. Women chairs and chief executives could become more prevalent - which would be great for business - and we would also see a better gender balance among senior executive teams.

Fiona Dent is a director of executive education at Ashridge Business School. As a member of the management committee, she is involved in setting strategic direction, with a particular focus on HR. She has written seven books, including The Leader's Guide to Influence (Pearson, 2010).

Viki Holton is a research fellow at Ashridge. Her interests include surveying trends in management, best practice in career development, HR, equal opportunities and the development of women managers.