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Column: Is there really a glass ceiling for women in the workplace – or is it just for mothers?

The ‘glass ceiling’ is less to do with being a woman and more to do with having to care for small children.

Andrea Mara

Is there really a glass ceiling for women in the workplace? Or is it for the most part, something experienced by mothers in the workplace?

A controversial question perhaps, but I wonder are there so many employees who have been held back in the workplace simply because of being female. Female employees who have children: yes, for sure. But are there any great numbers of women who don’t have children experiencing gender discrimination?

In my own experience of working in financial services for 15 years, I have never observed gender discrimination of any kind. I work in an office with roughly equal numbers of men and women, all doing the same type of work.

Some earn more than others, based on responsibility, competence and experience. But pay has never been directly or indirectly linked to gender and there would be no motivation on the part of our employer to do otherwise.

I wondered if it was something that existed in the past

Management roles are also filled by a mix of men and women; promotions are almost always from within, and senior roles go to those with most ability, regardless of gender.
During my first ten years in the workforce, I heard about the “glass ceiling” from time to time. I wondered if it was something that existed in the past and was now disappearing, or something that existed in other countries or in other industries. But not, as far as I could see, in financial services in 21st century Ireland.

Then I had kids.

And it all started to look a little different.

I realised that my new circumstances made me less flexible, and therefore less valuable to anyone hiring into more senior roles. I had to leave the office at 5.30 every evening to collect my baby from crèche – I could no longer stay late.

In fact there was usually no need to stay late – the work was manageable during the working day, but many of us did regularly stay a little late, mostly out of habit.
So I left at 5.30, but checked my email on the way home, replying and following up, therefore avoiding a situation whereby anyone could point a finger.

Staying under the radar.

Travelling for work was suddenly more complicated – it meant my husband had to do crèche drop-off and collection, which in turn impacted his work-day. But I managed, mostly by travelling only when truly necessary, and without publicising that I was avoiding some trips.

Staying under the radar.

8am meetings were now a challenge – juggling crèche drop-off, negotiating with my
husband, panicking when early meetings coincided with his work trips…but I always turned up on time, perhaps hiding breathlessness, hiding the fact that it had been a struggle.

Staying under the radar.

Maintaining isn’t progressing

I was keeping it together, working harder than ever before, and maintaining an outward air of calm professionalism – even when I was panicking inside about whether or not the meeting with my boss would go on past 5.30 or if anyone could see the banana handprints on my suit.

I was maintaining, but I don’t know if I was progressing. If a more senior position came up that would require longer hours and more travel, I wouldn’t have gone for it. Is that a glass ceiling? Maybe. It depends on whether you believe long hours should be a pre-requisite for senior positions.

But if it was a glass ceiling, it was because of my new inflexibility since having children – it was because I am a mother, and not because I am a woman. I was making a conscious choice – deciding against going for more senior positions because I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice more family time.

After my second child was born, I worked full-time for a year then finally caved – I nervously asked my boss if I could switch to a four-day week and, happily for me, he agreed. He said “I know what it’s like to have small kids. You just need to stay under the radar for a few years and then come back” Under the radar. And lucky me, to have such an understanding boss.

But progression? Often difficult for someone working a three-day or four-day week.

Employers should recognise the value in flexible working conditions

And I strongly feel that this is short-sighted. I think employers who don’t see the value in facilitating flexible working conditions for parents are missing an opportunity. Employers who put mothers on the ‘mommy-track’ are discriminating, albeit often inadvertently.
Employers who don’t promote mothers are losing the chance to fill senior positions with the most practised multi-taskers out there. Not everyone is looking for progression – many of us are happy to stay under the radar for now, but for those who are, the glass ceiling is a bitter pill.

The mommy-track or the glass ceiling – whichever one we call it – it isn’t fair, and certainly not if applied universally, regardless of the ability of individual employees who happen to be mothers.

I’m pretty sure now that the glass ceiling is linked largely to the state of being a mother and not down to being a woman. Which doesn’t help me right now. But maybe if we can keep moving in the right direction, it will help my daughters.

Andrea Mara has three small kids, one tall husband and one office job. She writes at OfficeMum.ie about being a parent, being a mother working outside the home, being a woman in the workplace. She’s just trying to keep her balance. Follow her tweets@office_mum or on Facebook.

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Andrea Mara

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