Men’s attitudes need to change if we are to finally break the glass ceiling

Both the existing processes for appointing senior company leaders and the behaviour of male board members are preventing women from receiving the recognition they deserve at the top of business

Female Business Leader Glass Ceiling

“I believe the glass ceiling is real, that it destroys morale, and that though we have made some progress, we are a long way from shattering it.”

Although more than three decades have passed since Evan Kemp, the former US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chair, made these comments, the glass ceiling remains firmly intact. Today, only 19.7% of board positions around the world are held by women – a figure that has crept up by roughly one percentage point per year since 2016. If progress continues at this pace, the World Economic Forum predicts it will take 132 years to reach gender equality globally

Organisations and senior businesswomen are in disagreement over the cause of this problem. More than three quarters (78%) of the executives polled by the International Institute for Management Development and The Boardroom, a private members’ club for female business leaders, believe that companies hide behind the claim that they cannot find qualified women. This is despite the fact that almost all (99.2%) of those surveyed agree that the prevalence of talented women, who are ready to take on board-level roles, is not an issue.

The resounding message from the senior business women we surveyed was clear: it’s time for change; there can be no more excuses. 

One of the main barriers identified by people in the survey was a lack of networking opportunities for women – there is a need for those who are in powerful positions to recommend female colleagues when new opportunities arise and for women to build visibility with those
executives who influence the selection of board members.

Male board members are holding women back

But the survey also shows that this problem runs deeper. Only 8% of the female executives surveyed strongly agree that board roles are appointed on merit and over 90% said that men in powerful positions need to change their attitude towards women on boards. Both the existing processes and the prevailing attitude and behaviour of male board members needs to change. 

The fact that senior female executives do not see board appointments as meritocratic points to a huge gap between how many businesses present themselves and the reality aspiring female leaders face.

Without change, we risk sacrificing the next two generations of talented women to outdated gender stereotypes

If we want to see the change that is so urgently needed, companies – and their male leadership teams – need to change their approach when recruiting for new board members. More than 96% of the executives we surveyed believe that having women on boards changes the dynamic in the boardroom for the better. Diverse boards bring diverse perspectives that improve problem-solving and reduce groupthink, while increasing innovation. This makes the company more resilient and adaptable to change, thus leading to better operational and financial performance. 

Most of the time, the career obstacles that women face are institutional and that’s why we need a change in culture. Too often, those in positions of power seek to recruit in their own image. Women do not lack merit, what they lack is a close enough resemblance to the prevailing masculine perception of what leaders look like. Without change, we risk sacrificing the next two generations of talented, ambitious women and girls to outdated gender roles and stereotypes. 

Yet, when companies try to address the issue of gender diversity, they tend to focus on fixing the women, rather than the system. Gender diversity is often positioned as a women-only issue, which overlooks the significant impact it has on the overall performance of companies. 

If we truly want to make the cultural shift that is necessary in order to achieve gender parity, men have to be allies by advocating for high-potential women, speaking up when something is amiss, participating in company-driven initiatives to improve gender diversity and raising overall awareness. 

We need sustainable change – and men need to be part of this effort. Firstly, because men still hold many of the powerful positions where the decisions over who is invited onto the board are made, and secondly because we have to create organisational cultures that emphasize the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

It’s not a debate about men versus women, but rather about how we can create organizations where everyone can thrive.

Diana Markaki is founder and CEO of The Boardroom, the first private club for women executives who aspire to be board members. Diana is an international M&A lawyer with an EMBA from Harvard Business School, senior executive in the energy and infrastructure industry, and experienced board member in both public and private companies.

Alexander Fleischmann is research affiliate at IMD Lausanne. His work focuses on inclusion and how it can be measured, inclusive language and images, ableism and LGBTIQ+ at work as well as possibilities to organise solidarity.