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Laura Liswood Headshot

Is 20 Percent the Glass Ceiling?

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Recently, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, much attention was given to the fact that the number of women attending declined from 17 percent to 16 percent. Upon reflection, this has less to do with who the Forum invites to this event and more to do with the number of women companies are sending. The pool of women CEOs and Chairs of companies (the group from which Forum attendees are chosen by their companies) has not grown dramatically which is reflected in the number of women present.

More curiously, is the hovering percentage of somewhere between 15-25 percent women in organizations or other representational statistics now a glass ceiling?

Data points include:

  • Women average 19 percent of seats if both houses of parliaments globally.
  • 18.5 percent of the U.S. Congress in 2014 are women.
  • In 2011, women were 16 percent of Fortune 500 board directors (with no significant change since).
  • Women hold 20 percent of senior management positions globally, up just 1 percent from 10 years ago.
  • Twenty percent of producers of films in the U.S. are women.
  • From 1990-2005, 25 percent of speaking roles in G-rated movies were women/girls (with again no significant change since).

As the numbers do not seem to be shifting in any dramatic or rapid ways over the decade it seems that the 1:5 ratio is a plateau for women. Do two women in a room of 10 men seem like some sort of equality or at least satisfactory representation?

I remember a study done by an educational group, which asked teachers to call on boys and girls equally -- 50/50 -- for two months. At the end of the experiment, the boys were asked what it was like. Their response was that the girls were getting all the attention; and that was at 50/50. So perhaps the boys (and perhaps the girls too) had perceived equal attention as somewhere above 50 percent -- maybe 70/30 or 80/20.

There is also the phenomenon that non-dominant groups get 'over noticed' (and over scrutinized) when they speak or act. Because it is more unusual to hear a woman speak than a man, she gets over heard and makes more of an unconscious impact. We may then think she has spoken more than she has.

Is 20 percent also a comfort zone for those in the dominant group? Once any under-represented group gets to critical mass (25 percent or more) than their power to have a significant effect, to achieve a result and influence, becomes more noticeable and effective. Would 5 women out of 10 in the group begin to feel like an unconscious loss of presence and power for some men?

The pipeline metaphor is sometimes used to explain this plateau. The original thought was that if women were sufficiently represented at the lower levels, be it corporate or elected offices or other, they would naturally rise to the top. And yet, the data reflects a stall or clog in that pipeline which would indicate that there is less an intake problem for women in organizations and more of an upgrade problem.

Part of the call for quotas or other affirmative mechanisms comes from this plateau issue.

Vivian Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, has thought about this and now states "I have not been an advocate of quotas for women in senior business posts in the past, but given the lack of progress in this area, we might in the future have to consider taking initiatives at the European level."

Reflecting on the glacial progress of the pipeline flow, both Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, described the controversial system as 'unfortunate but necessary,' in a recent panel at Davos. Lagarde elaborated on this by saying that at a law firm where she once worked the number of female partners was so low and remained low for such a long time that unless they had at least targets, if not quotas, there was no way the right steps were going to be taken to have a significant number of females in the partnership.

For women, 20 percent feels like slight and slow progress; maybe for men 20 percent feels like a great deal of progress.