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University of Stirling


The effect of glass walls on women achieving top management roles

Professor Sharon Bolton

Glass walls are proving an initial obstacle to women in the workplace, ahead of the glass ceiling, with them being ‘boxed into’ certain roles.

Professor Sharon Bolton, Head of the Management School at the University of Stirling, and its Dean of Equality & Diversity, says this occupational segregation by gender prevents women from advancing to the top in management.

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Bolton said: “To be selected for top management jobs, it is necessary to have diverse experience across different company areas. As long as women are boxed into certain roles, this will not happen – hence the need to break down glass walls before women can break through the glass ceiling to top management.”

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), jobs such as human resource management, PR and communication are almost entirely female dominated. But women are a much smaller minority in functional areas like finance, research, operations, and general management.

Of middle management roles, the ILO - in its recent report ‘Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum’ - refers to an equal 50:50 gender split. Female CEOs of publicly listed companies however, number less than five per cent in OECD countries, and 2.8 per cent in the European Union.

In the UK, women comprise 60 per cent of junior managers, 40 per cent of middle managers, 20 per cent at senior levels and less than half of that in CEO positions. This gender-based pyramid structure, identified by the Chartered Management Institute, is not unique to the UK.

While FTSE 100 companies may have experienced a rise in the number of women on company boards last year, this reflects an increase in non-executive, as opposed to executive, directors. The former do not have the same involvement in the daily running of the company.

Professor Bolton - a finalist in the Institute of Directors Scotland Director of the Year Awards being held later this month - said: “When examining differences in workplace opportunity, management roles are useful indicators of equality. Becoming a manager or senior executive offers the largest chance to achieve economic equality and to influence access for other women in the labour market.”

She said that women’s position in the global labour market did not simply reflect their actual skills and career choices, but was a product of institutionalised exclusion. While allowing for the mass entry of women to certain occupations, this was responsible for keeping them unequally positioned economically.

In her article, Professor Bolton writes that without action, the ILO forecasts that it could take as long as 200 years for women to achieve parity with men at management level globally; 80 years in developed countries.