Question time: The glass ceiling

What is the real problem stopping more women from assuming top executive positions in Maltese companies?

Maria Brown is a sociologist and a LEAD participant.

The real problem is that there is no one tangible problem that can be directly addressed by means of a simple cause-and-effect model, but an undergirding and long-standing cultural imaginary that restricts women’s ascent to top executive positions, their long-term incumbency of such positions and the resulting role-modelling for future generations.

Back in 1978, organisation change consultant Marilyn Loden used the term ‘glass ceiling’ in the US to refer to barriers to career advancement.  In Malta these incentives were really strengthened by the present administration and include state-financed childcare for children in dual-earner and single-employed-parent families; Jobsplus’s childcare subsidy scheme that subsidises childcare services availed of during Jobsplus-offered training; increase of the maximum in-work benefit for single-earner families; as well as income tax credits.

Such legislative and policy tools provide the welfare infrastructure required to incentivise, enact and maintain long-term employment and progressive career and professional development for women, also by reducing financial and stress burdens from respective partners and families.

Such legislative and policy tools are cultural expressions of the time. There is limited guarantee on their effective deployment and on how stakeholders engage with them. The spectrum of stakeholders in question is broad and diverse.

Women form an inherently diverse group. The concept of ‘intersection’ explains how people’s experience of the same phenomenon – in this case women’s career advancement – differs because of intersecting variables, such as age, ethnicity, place of residence, class and educational level. Consequently, values, beliefs, expectations, rituals and other components of any cultural imaginary can be inspired by an incumbent government’s position, legislation and policymaking only to a limited extent.

The ‘glass ceiling’ concept is still relevant to date in challenging sex-based inequality

Even the uptake by employers of ‘on paper’ incentives is limited: one can lead a horse to water, but can’t make it drink. Case in point is the Equality Mark awarded by the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) to employers that come forth as interested in obtaining this certification.

This is awarded once NCPE certifies these employers make gender equality one of their values and base management on recognition and promotion of the potential of all employees, irrespective of gender and caring responsibilities.  Since 2010 only 80 employers in Malta have been awarded the Equality Mark. These include public and civil society organisations such as the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, Mater Dei Hospital, the National Statistics Office and the Chamber for Small and Medium Enterprises.

Numerous employers in the private sector also feature. Notably, of the two political parties that employ human resources, only the Labour Party is awarded the Equality Mark.

The absence of the University of Malta among employers awarded this certification is troubling. Less than 40 per cent of academics of the University of Malta are women. This is an institution that should be at the forefront in beaconing social progress. Innumerable research studies point at the unparalleled role of education in bridging the gap between policy and practice.

Consequently, the ‘glass ceiling’ concept is still relevant to date in challenging sex-based inequality that has become more subtle and selective. Intersectionality is a pertinent question that calls for the scrutiny of the socio-demographic profile of the women that ascend and of those that are left behind.

Research in this area can guide the way forward for State and employers in fostering a sustainably developed cultural imaginary that endorses women and their families in all their diversity.

Kristy Debono is President of the General Council of the nationalist Party.

Disparity between the genders is a deep-rooted malaise of contemporary society. Despite the increase in awareness and advances in social rights, the gender gap is still a major challenge even in Malta.

In order to overcome discrimination against women effectively and justly, it is fundamental that more women take up senior positions in companies. The latest data by the World Economic Forum, however, reveals worrying trends. In just four years Malta fell 41 places in the rankings for the share of women in decision-making roles, dropping to the worst position ever at 121. This marks an embarrassing failure and contradicts the impression that is sometimes given that our country is winning the fight on the equality front.

While it is true that women are steadily climbing the professional ladder, the stumbling blocks become increasingly tougher the closer they get to occupying positions at the top tier of the respective company’s pyramid.

There are indeed encouraging attempts to eradicate gender disparities, but the gender gap remains frustratingly wide when it comes to accepting women in the hierarchy of the organigram.

The agents of the problem are various and wide-ranging, but the major elements that are perpetuating this inequality can be reversed if enough people – men and women – responsibly do their share.

The hurdles for women to assume top positions in organisations are as much cultural as they are strategic and operational

The cultural change in our society to accept women in high positions, managing other fellow women and men is changing but not fast enough. Men still tend to perceive a female boss as ambiguous and certain women would rather be answerable to men. This tends to be mostly predominant in traditional companies.

Women still face the reality of needing to break the stereotypical image of women and erase this mentality from fellow colleagues. In male-dominated industries and professions this is a challenge that women must overcome before it can be shown that women are equal to men and then prove their worth and merit in occupying high positions.

Positive discrimination might sometimes be counterproductive. Quotas in boards and other positions, might give the safe impression that employers are doing their bit towards female engagement by delivering the required ratios in the boardroom, even if these only act as a rubber-stamp leaving the more significant executive roles in the ‘safe hands’ of men.

The legal framework to ensure family-friendly structures at the place of work for all levels in the organisation’s hierarchy still leaves much to be desired. As a result it might be easier for employers and directors to opt for ‘sure investment’ and recruit male employees to avoid any future crisis in the management team, in case a few years down the line the female employee would need to temporarily restructure her working method. Though I acknowledge that maternity leave comes at a cost to the employer, it’s high time for government to propose a solid structure where government can carry more burden; especially in times when the country is going through an economic growth.

Given the long hours that executive roles entail in the place of work, the government needs to incentivise in-house childcare centres in big companies and business hubs. Incentives must be towards the opening of such centres, running the operation and also help on the fiscal side. It’s a pity that in localities like Valletta which hosts thousands of employees, to my knowledge there are no childcare centres.

The hurdles for women to assume top positions in organisations are as much cultural as they are strategic and operational. Clearly, political will is crucial to overcome these obstacles and help everyone do their share to bring the gender gap to an overdue close.

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