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Fixing Broken Windows: Shattered Myths About the Glass Ceiling

Leading organisations now realise that improving the representation of female leaders is crucial to business success. In fact, according to research from McKinsey, “Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.”

Where are all the women?

Cisco is a shining exemplar of gender diversity at the executive leadership level.

A look at our Executive Leadership “wheel” shows a well-balanced team, equal parts male and female.  But many companies across the globe would present an extremely lopsided wheel.   A recent Harvard Business Review article notes the lack of women executive officers in the Fortune 500 and asks this compelling question: “Why, when there’s so much conversation about the topic, are the numbers not moving?”

Before the top comes the middle

Why indeed? I believe there are few women at the top of the corporate ladder because companies are not focused on women working in the middle levels – middle-women, if you like. In her brilliant essay in The Guardian, “Forget the glass ceiling, we need to fix the broken windows first,” Jean Martin explains this phenomenon, “In many cases, women are not held back because of a glass ceiling but because of the cumulative effect of the micro-issues that women face day after day that slows their journey, or stops them getting to the top.”

Said another way, they never reach the ultimate destination because the middle of the journey is such a hard slog.

Fixing broken windows

Martin proposes a solution based on the crime prevention strategy known as the “broken widows” approach which asserts that small acts of crime (littering, graffiti, broken windows) escalate to more serious crimes if left unaddressed. She explains, “Translating this into the business world, preventative measures to fix the fairly minor day-to-day issues must be taken now. The smart employer puts the focus on understanding and engaging female employees just as they start to consider their careers. This means engaging in proper discussions with female staff about career aspirations early on, ensuring there are female role models within the company and making flexible working the norm rather than the exception.”

So what can companies do to help middle-women survive and thrive? Here are 5 ideas:

1. Begin at the beginning 

Attracting more female employees could be as simple as changing the language in your recruitment ads. In fact, Inc. Magazine reports: “Women are turned off to job descriptions that list traits typically associated with men such as assertive, aggressive, and analytical. Women prefer to see words like dedicated, responsible, sociable, and conscientious.”

2. Develop the talent you have  

Once you have female talent in the door, build your bench strength. For example, Cisco offers two unique programmes designed to address the specific development needs of aspiring women leaders. The DARE and JUMP women’s development programmes arm women with the skills and behaviours needed to excel in their current role and contribute to the future success of Cisco. They feature workshops that encourage networking with peers and leverage internal leaders as role models.

3. Establish networks and communities of interest

The benefits of networking are well documented. And women tend to be excellent networkers. At Cisco, volunteers have created the Connected Women network, a global community to attract, develop, retain, and celebrate talented women as part of a competitive and diverse workforce.

 4. Provide strong role models

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Melissa Mayer are often cited as role models for working women. But these examples can seem too far-removed. Women also need accessible role models within their own organisations. To that end, Connected Women at Cisco champions an Executive Shadowing programme that pairs middle-women “shadowees” with women executives for career insight and coaching.

5. Give women what they want 

The number one thing female employees value? Flexibility. In fact, 86% of companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For (which includes Cisco) offer some type of flexible schedule. In the U.S., we were recently named #3 on a list of “The 25 best tech companies to work for in America” based on six criteria including pay and ability to telecommute.   Last year, we were named #8 on a list of “The top 25 places to work in the UK” based on a survey by jobs website Glassdoor. Cisco was praised for “its training and development programmes and the work-life balance for staff.”

It’s all about the culture

Although companies like Cisco are making great strides at the executive levels, we must continue to “fix broken windows” for middle-women. And while the above ideas may help, ultimately what will attract and retain talented women is a culture that embraces diverse leadership styles.

What are your ideas for “fixing broken windows?” Share your insight in the comments below

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How Culture Affects Connectivity

Howard Baldwin - PhotographBy Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

As I wander through the world of broadband, I frequently worry that for every step forward, we take one step back. As I’ve written about previously, we seem to be at an inflection point where we see the potential value of broadband, but putting it into reality seems to be more ephemeral.

Especially here in the U.S., we seem to be “talking the talk” more than we’re “walking the walk.” The confluence of certain events recently has underscored my ongoing concern even more recently.

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A solo trip to Russia


When you hear about Russia, what images come to your mind? Grand Palaces, matryoshka dolls, vodka?

Since studying Russian history at school and in my endeavour to visit as many countries as possible during my lifetime (I’ve currently visited 42), I’ve always wanted to visit the largest country in the world and to see the Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral and the Winter Palace with my own eyes. Read More »

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Collaboration Patterns That Accelerate Your Business

This is my fourth blog in a multi-part series.  In my first blog, I introduced insights from Cisco’s Collaboration Work Practice Study and how people value collaboration in the work environment.  In my second blog, I discussed the importance of building trust-based relationships and networks to make collaboration work for you.  In my third blog, I share how you can turn human interactions into business results.  In today’s blog, I discuss patterns of collaborative behaviors and how to leverage them to better support collaborators.


Collaboration can happen at anytime.  Some would describe it as chaotic.   But interestingly enough, through all the collaborative interactions we observed, we saw patterns in the “chaos” – patterns that did not just exist in organizational silos, nor were they simply associated with a job role or personality type.   Throughout the day, people play a variety of roles and experience different types and modes of collaboration.   They go from online to offline, in a virtual meeting to meeting over coffee, have an ad-hoc chat in the break-room and attend a global Cisco TelePresence meeting.

If we pay close attention to the behavior patterns of collaboration we can learn how to better support collaborators and create a more seamless experience. This is where process, technology and the physical and virtual workplace can complement the human behaviors that occur during collaboration.

Accelerating Collaboration through Catalysts and Connectors

“Not everyone is comfortable with collaborating virtually. [A catalyst’s] outreach encourages participation and makes the experience rich and meaningful.”   – Study Participant

In our study, we found that certain types of people play an essential role in not only Read More »

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Turning Human Interaction into Business Results

This is my third blog in a multi-part series.  In my first blog, I introduced insights from Cisco’s Collaboration Work Practice Study and how people value collaboration in the work environment.  In my second blog, I discussed the importance of building trust-based relationships and networks to make collaboration work for you.  In today’s blog, I share how you can turn these human interactions into business results. 


Engage.  We use the word engage every day. It’s rich with meaning and covers a wide spectrum of relationships. We are engaged with our families, colleagues, and customers; engaged with an idea, a process, or an initiative.  And when engaged, people are passionate and committed.

At its core, collaboration is people interacting with people. In the global Cisco Collaboration Work Practice Study, employees told us that successful collaboration depends on encouraging natural human interaction, enabling participation and engagement, and fostering a collaborative culture.

“You really need to focus on the people aspect first. Get individuals to feel engaged and continue to be engaged. I think too many times we rely on the technology.” – Study Participant

In my previous blog, I discussed the importance of not losing sight of the “human element.”  Taking the time to build relationships leads to trust, which is fundamental for collaboration. To turn human interactions between collaborators into concrete results, companies must Read More »

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