Hitting the glass ceiling (or staying under the radar)

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?
I realise that this is a controversial question but I’m genuinely interested to know if there are people reading who have been held back in the workplace simply because of being female.
In my own experience of working in financial services for fifteen years, I have never seen 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.
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.
image credit blog.iese.edu

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.
image credit managementhelp.org


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.
image credit girlsonthegrid.com

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.
image credit themomblog.com

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? Sadly, difficult for someone working a four-day-week.
And I strongly, 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.

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.


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18 thoughts on “Hitting the glass ceiling (or staying under the radar)”

  1. A well considered piece yet again. Would say I have experienced that to some extent- at my last interview for an in company promotion one of the panel introduced me as “practically a single mother” ( a few years ago my husband travelled frequently for work) & laboured the point that I had three children. I also then failed to push for other opportunities as it would have meant a more significant commute. But would feel it was a significant factor . I had a degree & the relevant professional qualifications as well as practical experience that the successful candidate did not. I actually ended up doing the job for several years without promotion. I did take on a significant additional workload up to that point & again felt I had to work harder than my peers without children. Looking forward to checking out the new look website. Rosemarie

    1. Thanks Rosemarie – I am a little bit speechless that you were referred to as “practically a single mother” in an interview – hopefully an off-the-cuff comment that the person would never have made if they thought about it for half a second?
      I think the not pushing for opportunities is very common – if it means longer hours it’s hard to sign up and balance that with kids and childcare. Thanks for being my first ever commenter on my new site!

  2. Great post and I really agree, mothers can bring amazing skills to a job due to their multitasking abilities and learning how to make ever moment count. I know a number of women who are far exceeding the work quota of colleagues without children, even working shorter weeks. This issue definitely needs some exposure!

    Love the new website! Another example of wonderful multitasking!

    1. Thanks Naomi – I reckon woman are natural multi-taskers and having kids brings that side out in force, by necessity!
      And thanks for saying nice things about the new website!

  3. Think this is such a relevant post.. My own story is very similar, went from always having my hand up looking for new projects and more responsibility but two children later and I was more likely to be found trying to slink out the door unnoticed at 5 o;clock 🙁

    1. That’s the hard part Ciara – we are all feeling the need to “slink” out the door regardless of how much work we’ve done that day. It should be about quality and not quantity but we’re a bit away from that in many places of work…

  4. Yes, I can totally relate to your piece…have transitioned from career driven woman (no kids) to under-the-radar mam, to at-home mam after being made redundant before I had my second child, and now trying to transition back…:-)

    Can I ask…was the impact to your husband similar/different/both? 🙂

    “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 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.”

    1. hi Kathleen, nice to see you over there!
      I have to clarify the set up with my husband – my wording was misleading. He and I share the responsibility for childcare pick-ups 50/50. At the time, he was the drop-off guy so started and finished work a bit later, I was the pick-up person so started and finished work a bit earlier. If I had to travel, he had to do both drop off and pickup which was difficult to manage, and similarly when he travelled, I had the same problem. So definitely not a different impact for him. I worded it badly though – it makes it sound like the creche run was normally my responsibility and an inconvenience to him when I travelled – definitely not the case! Best of luck with your transition back to career-person, hope it goes well for you.

  5. Great piece. I used to work in financial services but left after I had twins, it was just too much juggling. Now though a few years later I am trying to return, not so easy!! What drives me nuts is when other women, especially mothers are negative towards working mothers/more flexible working arrangements. It is so short sighted.

    1. Oh good luck with your transition back!
      I am lucky – my work environment is actually very family-friendly in terms of how colleagues work together. We all support one another so that we can all maintain the flexibility that we have. But I know not everywhere is the same.

  6. Is there a glass ceiling? Sure. When you get to the very top of the food chain it’s definitely still a boy’s club, for the most part. According to Bloomberg, even if you manage to become a CEO while having breasts, you will still be paid less: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-16/washington-women-ceos-earn-600-000-less-than-male-lobby-peers.html

    And.. yeah.. there’s a million other articles, too.

    Part of it is simply the boy’s club mentality, really. Guys prefer to interact with guys because they are ‘less emotional’ and don’t bleed for a week. Or something. Whatever.

    But getting on the mommy thing? Honestly? If you had two employees that had the same exact resume and one was available whenever you needed for staying late, travel, etc..etc.. and the other wasn’t.. which one would YOU hire?
    We aren’t as flexible as our non mommy counterparts. What that translates into is that we aren’t as reliable in a crunch. So, yeah, becoming a parent makes it much harder to advance if you’d like to be a parent who is involved in their kid’s life as a priority.
    Any employee who has the whole ‘I have to be on this exact schedule’ no matter what the reason has a very very hard time advancing. You just aren’t as valuable as someone who is willing to devote their very soul to following the boss as a slave until it pays off. (kinda tongue-in-cheek there but not really)

    It’s not fair. It’s just reality… especially as the job market is SO much more competitive now than it was 10 years ago.

  7. Thanks for another great and well considered post. It really got me thinking. Great points and I can definitely relate to the difficulties you describe. The one addition I would have is that in some cases, mine included, it may be a decision by some working mothers that they are happy in the job they are in as it fits their desired work-life balance and they not wish to be promoted into a job that doesn’t give them that flexibility. So the ceiling may be a personal choice in some cases (but obviously not all).

    1. hey Yvonne, lovely to see you here 🙂 Yes, I think that really in a lot of cases, it’s a choice, or at least a reasonably acceptable trade-off. For me too – if the choice is long hours away from the kids and progression, or a good work-life balance and limited progression, the latter is what I want. What I really wanted to say in this post was that I had only recently come to the realisation that the glass ceiling is all about being a mother – not about being a woman. I could never understand that women were being restricted from progressing simply because of being women and I didn’t really believe a glass ceiling existed anymore – until I had kids. But yes, I think there are lots of mothers happily choosing this route, and others who know they should be able to progress without having to put in crazy-long hours (depends on job). Women who have colleagues taking it easy all day but being seen to be the last one leaving in the evening – now that’s frustrating!

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