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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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4 Comments

  1. I definitely agree with the sentiment in the article. I appreciate working for Cisco due to the flexibility.

  2. Thanks for an insiteful read.. it really does make a difference to have a women role model in your own organization

  3. I participated in the Cisco Executive Shadow Program this year. During the program closing ceremony, Diane Bryant of Intel addressed this issue and said that their research at Intel showed that women must actively seek out sponsors if they want to advance their careers. When female executives at Intel created a sponsorship program for talented women, they were able to significantly improve the percentage of women at VP levels while little changed in middle management layers during the same period without such a program.

    • Thanks for the Intel insights Itir - really interesting!