Smashing The Glass Ceiling
Image Credit: John Fraissinet

Smashing The Glass Ceiling


Twenty-one years after Melanie Griffiths donned shoulder pads and a power suit as the ambitious secretary struggling for the top of the corporate ladder in the movie Working Girl, there’s still plenty of evidence that a glass ceiling – the invisible barrier preventing women from scaling the upper echelons of her career – exists. Studies show that less than a quarter of senior positions worldwide are occupied by women, and that women in similar jobs receive, on average, 75 per cent of men’s pay.

But while the glass ceiling appears to be global, its thickness varies from country to country. A number of factors – cultural, societal and individual – combine to determine women’s ability to progress in a given nation. And it doesn’t always play out in ways you might expect.

The Philippines, an emerging economy famous as an exporter of cheap domestic labour, has the highest number of women managers in the world. On the other hand, more developed counties, such as Germany and France, where feminist movements have been active for decades, have among the lowest. In Australia, a country that prides itself on its egalitarian principles, surprisingly few women reach ‘C-level’ positions (the upper echelon job titles that start with the word ‘Chief’). The number of women executives in the ASX top 200 companies has actually fallen, to 10.7 per cent from 12 per cent in 2006, according to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Commission.

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A study by consultancy firm Grant Thornton International showed that women hold 47 per cent of all senior positions in the Philippines, followed by Russia (42 per cent) and Thailand (38 per cent). The lowest percentage is in Japan (7 per cent), with countries like Australia, the US and the UK trailing at between 20 per cent and 23 per cent. France and Germany have 18 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. If you confine that search to the top few hundred companies in each country, the numbers are even lower.

Analysts put Filipinas’ success down to a strong matriarchal culture that predates Spanish colonial influence. ‘Filipino women have always taken a strong presence in the home and community,’ says Senator Loren Legarda, a former TV news anchor and the youngest woman ever elected to the Philippine Senate, considered a leading contender for the 2010 presidential candidacy. If she wins, she’ll be the country’s third female leader. Still, she has had to work hard to overcome sexual stereotypes in her native country. ‘During my time as a journalist, being a woman was indeed a challenge,’ she told The Diplomat. ‘The newsroom was male-dominated – from the production crew, director, presenters, reporters and anchors up to the top management. As a politician, today I often find myself the lone woman among male politicians. But it has never bothered me or affected me in a negative way.’

There’s not necessarily a correlation between women in politics and women in senior management positions. India and Chile both have female leaders and very few female CEOs. China, on the other hand, has increasingly large numbers of women entrepreneurs, including billionaire paper-recycling tycoon Cheung Yan, who was the richest woman in China before being eclipsed by property heiress Yang Huiyan, but very few female officials in the all-powerful Communist Party.

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