Women in the workplace: does the glass ceiling still exist?

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Woman magnifying glass / Shutterstock

With several negative stories making headlines this month on the issue of sexism in certain arenas – from the case of a female WestJet pilot who was told that the cockpit is “no place for a woman”, to BC having the second-lowest representation of women on boards of directors in Canada, according to Catalyst Canada – we ask whether the glass ceiling for women in the workplace exists to this day?

Canadian Cancer Society CEO Barbara Kaminsky, one of Business In Vancouver’s Influential Women in Business 2014 award winners, believes that the glass ceiling debate is a complex one due to its subjectivity.

“In the case of Not-For-Profit organizations, I don’t see a glass ceiling,” she spoke exclusively to Vancity Buzz. “If anything, men might say they are discriminated against as these tend to be made up of predominantly women. I would have to admit that there still exists the stereotype between the two genders that men are motivated more so by status, while women are attracted to a mission or a cause.”

Erin Gerlach, Marketing Director with Lunch With The Ladies, a Vancouver-based social networking forum that provides women with similar interests and in similar fields the opportunity to connect and provide mentorship, says that increasingly the case is for women helping women to reach an equal and level playing field with men, which can sometimes be an uphill battle.

“Of course,” she admitted, “the best of us will experience bigotry and ignorance at some point in our adult lives, but we can either laugh at these episodes or we can disassemble the patterns that enable them.”

“Veteran pilot Kirsten Brazier’s approach to tackling the deficit in her industry with ‘The Sky’s No Limit – Girls Fly Too’ is very similar to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s new ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign,” she continued. “By introducing girls to a career they may not have considered before, you stoke their interest and offer new possibilities.”

The Sky’s No Limit took place at the Langley Regional Airport on International Women’s Day on March 8, during Women of Aviation Worldwide Week. According to the Government of Canada, less than two per cent of women in aviation and aerospace are aircraft maintenance engineers, less than six per cent are commercial pilots, and less than three per cent of the Royal Canadian Air Force are women, which the free event sought to remedy through education and awareness.

Meanwhile, the controversial #BanBossy campaign has divided women worldwide. Sandberg and the Girl Scouts aim to ban the other “b word” from our vocabulary, with the support of the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Jane Lynch and Beyonce, who says as part of the video campaign that she’s not “bossy”, she’s “the boss”.

Critics argue that rather than banning the relatively innocuous word compared to others used to describe women in popular culture, we should embrace being bossy as a sign of strength and leadership. Leading to the question: is it better to be bossy than to be bossed around?

Barbara commented; “I believe that both men and women can be called bossy, but of course it’s much better to inspire someone than to ‘boss them around’. I had a similar situation at work recently when one of my male staff members kept calling me ‘boss’. I didn’t see it in a negative way, more so as a term of endearment, but I told him; “Hey, I’m not “The Boss” – there’s only one Bruce Springsteen – so just call me Barb!” I think if you’re open and you don’t want a peer to refer to you in a certain way, just tell them the truth.”

Erin is behind the mission. “LWTL supports any movement that educates our young people and affects change toward the positive,” she said. “Some people may feel that it is too simplified a campaign for such a complex problem plaguing society, which puts women’s rights into question.”

“Still,” she continued, “messages like Sandberg’s about building confidence in girls is a necessary one. When a negative spin is put on the actions of young people, while they are developing and finding new paths, it closes them in. Sheryl Sandberg has worked diligently to help women identify false barriers and to ‘lean in’ to their full potential.”

Barbara’s advice for other women looking to reach the top? Look outside the norm.

“I can only speak to my own journey, but from a young age I knew that I wanted to do something important. I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do something meaningful for society. I did well in school, completing two grades in one, and I always knew that whatever norms were apparent at the time, I could do better.”

“It’s all about hard work,” she continued. “You don’t have to necessarily be the smartest person on the planet, but if you put the time in and you’re persistent in believing in yourself and your goal, you can do anything you put your mind to. The secret is knowing that you’re only as good as the people you work with and being a successful leader is all about people skills.”

“Of course,” she added, “this wasn’t always the case as when I first started out there was a different generation of men passing judgement. In fact, I still find it to this day in certain industries. For instance, I work a lot with the research community and in some cases, not all, there still exists a certain bias based not on your gender but on your background. If you don’t have an MD-PhD, sometimes that mutual respect doesn’t come quite so naturally. I have two master’s degrees, but somehow it doesn’t have the same equivalency!”

So, how does Barbara maintain a healthy work-life balance and does she resent being asked that question as a woman?

“No, I’m used to it,” she said. “I’m so incredibly busy every year with the Society’s hugely successful Fight For Life campaign, beginning on April 1, so in order to be a successful CEO you have to have a different definition of what the work-life balance entails.”

“You have to be prepared to work hard and long hours,” she added, “and work is always on your mind. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a movie on a Sunday, let’s say, your mind is always at work, always processing. That’s the way it has to be in order to lead an important organization. It’s only when it’s affecting your health that you may have to reconsider such a career.”

And does she resent the idea that to be successful women should ‘think like a man’?

“That’s a phrase that gets thrown around a lot,” she answered, “but to me that means being logical. There are still certain stereotypes that distinguish our genders, which we have to fight against. For example, I’ve had disagreements in the past in the boardroom where it’s okay to be passionate about the concept in debate, but not the person you’re debating.”

“As women, we should never be afraid of conflict,” she continued, “as long as it’s about the issue at hand and it never turns personal. It’s a fine line. The stereotype goes that men can have an impassioned disagreement, park it at the door and go have a drink, whereas women hold grudges. We can never hold grudges. My motto is that yesterday was yesterday and we have to move on.”

One argument in the debate is that we’ve come so far in fifty years and one can only imagine where we’ll be in another fifty, although Barbara points out that it’s not far enough.

“We haven’t come as far as I’d expected!,” she quipped. “Throughout my formative adult years in the 1970s, we were all so convinced that we could change the world. We made good strides for a while, but then things seems to become slow to evolve, and it became apparent that the generation after ours weren’t as fussed about change. They had it easier than we ever encountered, so they never felt the need to question the status quo. I wish society as a whole changed more drastically, but it is what it is.”

Erin agrees that statistics show that we still have a long way to go until we experience genuine gender equality. “Despite legislation for equal pay, women are still making approximately .78 cents to the dollar compared to men in the same field,” she said.

“More than ever before, women are creating their own opportunities by starting their own businesses, thus becoming their own boss. This self-starter approach can provide a flexible work environment and help facilitate motherhood and a strong work-life balance.”

“What’s promising is that this desire for equal rights is not only being driven by women,” she added. “The United Nations underlines the importance of getting everyone involved in this fight with this month’s ‘He for She’ campaign, with well known men like Desmond Tutu, Patrick Stewart and Matt Damon urging support for gender equality.”

“Similarly,” she went on, “our CEO Sam Chung was prompted to create LWTL to address constraints in both the personal and professional lives of women, to work to tear down the walls that would hem us in, causing us to feel isolated or otherwise unfulfilled.”

Barbara’s advice to overcome the glass ceiling is to simply ignore it altogether. “If you experience it in your chosen industry, just pretend that it doesn’t exist! Try not to become angry or negative as it won’t do you any good. All you can do is to be positive and be your best, and eventually the world will take notice. It sounds like a Hallmark card, but trust me it’s the truth!”

Featured Image: Young woman magnifying glass via Shutterstock

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Rachel Healy Rachel Healy is a Social Media Marketing Manager with a background in TV & radio from her native Ireland. She came to Vancity for a one year adventure...and is still here five years later! #toogoodtoleave
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