Is there still a glass ceiling for women?

Reading Helena Marsh’s post ‘What glass ceiling?’ made me thoughtful.  In 2009 I was the head of a girls’ school and, for that year, President of the Girls’ Schools Association.  I was invited back to the school where I had been Head of English several years before (another girls’ school) to speak in a debate organised to celebrate their centenary.  The topic of the debate was ‘This house believes there is no longer a glass ceiling for women’.

I was asked to speak against the motion.  I thought about it, and then requested I speak FOR the motion.  I was told that wasn’t possible as they’d already engaged Estelle Morris to speak for the motion.  I was keen to be involved and accepted that – after all, I’d been an English teacher and was used to playing devil’s advocate.  I was confident I could argue on either side of an argument, whatever my personal views.

I set out to plan it.  I’m a words rather than a numbers person, and statistics don’t really do it for me, even though there are some disturbing statistics out there about women in positions of responsibility.  I decided instead to use women’s stories, and asked my Head of Careers to put me in touch with former students, now well-established in various professional areas, who could talk to me about whether they’d had any experience of gender discrimination.  These were women in their late 20s and 30s, so their experience of early career progression was recent.

The stories were much more worrying than I’d expected, especially in the areas of IT, Science and Finance.  These young women had experienced all kinds of situations where they’d been treated significantly differently from their male counterparts, and felt it had adversely affected their professional progress.  I used these stories to suggest the battle was far from won.  I felt strongly that the girls in the audience needed to accept that, in some professional areas, they might still face covert gender discrimination, that they needed to be aware of it, prepared for it, and then prepared to fight it.  Accepting it was out there was an important first step.

I lost the debate! Estelle Morris spoke brilliantly.  However, I felt the reason I lost was because the girls in the audience just didn’t want to believe it.  The phrase ‘glass ceiling’ wasn’t a phrase they were familiar with – we don’t actually use it much these days.  These young women had faith in their capacity to fight their corner and hold their own in a co-educational professional world, and I love that. But it still worried me that denial might mean if they DID face discrimination, it would seriously knock their confidence because they had come to believe the path would be smooth.

I always wanted to help girls succeed in doing anything they set their minds to.  But I wanted them to go into it with their eyes open and fully aware of the challenges.

What do others think?

Photo credit: John Berry

This post was originally posted on @staffrm in 2015

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