How to break the glass ceiling

How to break the glass ceiling

  • There are more women at the base and in the middle of the pyramid and few reach the top. In Malaga only 23 per cent of women in the private sector hold management posts and there are also inequalities in the public sector

The tribute which took place at UNED (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia), exactly ten years ago, would not have been exceptional if it had not been for the identity of those involved: it was in recognition of the work of the ten female chancellors who had held the top academic post in Spanish universities.

“And we were all there, all ten of us. All alive,” says one of those pioneers, Adelaida de la Calle, former rector of Malaga university, who recalls the event as if it were yesterday. She makes the point that they were all alive to show how little progress towards equality there had been in the past, and how it is only recently that women have reached the top in their professional careers. It is, however, still unusual.

This is what experts call the 'glass ceiling', although De la Calle refers to it as the 'concrete ceiling': the series of invisible barriers which women come up against as they advance towards postions of greater responsibility. It is something which was especially highlighted this week, as Thursday 8 March was International Women's Day.

To analyse the situation, one has to visualise the distribution of labour rewards and responsibilities among men and women in the form of a pyramid. For years, women have been in the majority at the base and in the middle of the pyramid. However, more women now go to university, more are professionally qualified and more gain good jobs through sheer merit - to mention just a few examples, as shown by the graphic which accompanies this report - so how is it possible that they have still not managed to break the 'glass ceiling' and reach the top of the pyramid? Why are so many women still lower down?

Adelaida de la Calle, who was rector of the UMA for 12 years (and for several of them the only female in the post in the whole of Spain), is now the president of the Technical Corporation of Andalucía. For her, the answer is simple. “We are still living in a sexist society and the extra responsibility which falls on women means they have still not been able to change the trend,” says.

“They don't think about us”

Her belief is widely shared by other women who, like her, have reached the top of their careers without having to break through glass (or concrete) because in their case it didn't exist. A couple of weeks ago the president of the Spanish parliament, Ana Pastor, only the second woman in two centuries to hold the post, said the same: “the scarce presence of women in management posts or positions of responsibility is because they don't think about us occupying those posts. That's why so few of us do,” she said.

Statistics confirm this core part of the debate about equality: the latest figures published in the Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), a study which measures the speed at which countries advance in this aspect, not only show that Spain has not progressed, but that it has regressed: on a global level, Spain has dropped from 25th to 29th place compared with the previous year's report (2015) which analysed 144 countries, and in the section which specifically looks at women in leadership posts, Spain is 64th out of 144. In other words, in this country the presence of women in upper management has reduced by about 14 per cent.

This setback in reaching parity and closing the gender gap means that another 47 years would be needed for equality to become a reality. The trends are national and international, but of course they can be extrapolated to the local situation: in Malaga, a report by the Association of Female Professionals and Entrepreneurs (Amupema) expects the presence of women in upper management to drop to about 23 per cent.

At this point in the debate, and with a view to the near future, it is worth looking further at the 'glass ceiling' and the social realities which favour this phenomenon. “Sometimes we put the glass ceiling in place ourselves without realising it, because there is a real inequality of roles. We always take on more responsibilities,” says judge Lourdes García Ortiz, who broke that ceiling just over a year ago when she became the first woman to preside over the Provincial Court.

In the Spanish judicial system, more women than men now pass the demanding selections tests and work in courts in Malaga city and elsewhere in the province. There are currently 113 women and 91 men holding these posts. This also applies to the other two parts of the legal administration system: in Malaga there are more female prosecutors (52, and 35 men) and more lawyers in the justice administration sector (LAJ): 101 women and 48 men.

Lourdes García Ortiz says that 90 per cent of the authorisations granted to staff at the Courts of Justice for family care are for women, and that when it comes to being given a post with responsibility “we are more afraid of taking that step because we have so many other things to deal with”.

That applied to her, as well: with more than 30 years' career behind her, two daughters who had grown up seeing how their mother would work at home “every single weekend” and a profound knowledge of the Provincial Court, she decided to take the step forward when she considered that she had enough personal and professional “maturity” to face this new responsibility.

Her argument about the need for “maturity” and a stable home life in order to climb the professional ladder is shared by businesswoman Paz Hurtado, the CEO of Hutesa Agroalimentaria who for years, on her own merits, has been at the top of a pyramid which even today few women can reach.

She recognises that in her case the glass ceiling did not exist, but says other social circumstances weigh on women and they have to decide whether to dedicate themselves to their work or their family. “Executives have to be available at all times, work 12 or 14 hours a day, attend numerous meetings, go on business trips.... in that situation one of the couple has to give something up and it is usually the woman. Many of us don't want to give up our family life; and nor should we have to,” says Hurtado, who associates this barrier to careers more with the “family structure” and lack of “emotional training” for women to delegate the care of their children rather than to a glass ceiling imposed from outside. “Nevertheless, I have never felt a lack of respect from a man or anybody else in my career,” she says. However, she is aware that there is still “a reluctance among men to give women a management post,” especiallyif she finds it demanding to reconcile family and professional life. “That is often the case, these days,” she admits.

Public and private

Women's experiences differ according to several variables: firstly, the reality of the 'pyramid' is less acute in the public sector, where people take exams in order to progress, than in the private sector where the real possibilities of promotion depend on the direct decision of those in charge of the company, who may well pay more attention to the personal circumstances of a woman who aspires to a higher position than to her merits and suitability.

In the private sector only 23 per cent of women hold management posts, and in Malaga province there are almost twice as many self-employed men (70,077) than women (39,290). In the public sector, however, in general women are in the majority. Even so, at Malaga university the proportion of women on the upper steps of the ladder is much lower: there may be more female students (18,742) than males (16,314), but this doesn't apply to the teaching staff: the UMA has 240 male professors and 54 females, 456 male heads of department compared with 298 women, and 12 male and four female deans.

With regard to the public administrations, in the Junta de Andalucía and the Malaga provincial government there are more female civil servants than males: in Malaga province a total of 7,039 people work for the regional government (2,397 men and 4,642 women) and 1,277 for the Diputación (490 men and 787 women). Further up the pyramid, though, the figures tend to be more similar. For example, nine women and five men work as personal assistants to MPs in the regional parliament, and 19 men and 16 women are heads of department at the provincial government.

At the Andalusian Health Service the gap is also quite acute: of the 15,844 health workers in Malaga province, there are almost twice as many (10,969) women than men (4,874), but only 20 of the 53 management posts are held by women.

Dr Concha Soler, was the first general surgeon in Malaga. She started work at the Civil Hospital in 1977 and in 2009 she became coordinator of the Breast Unit at the Clínico Universitario hospital, a post she held until she retired early last year. For more than 30 years she was on call every six nights, and she worked until 12 days before giving birth. “It was very hard, and I was quite often ignored,” she says. “In clinical sessions they would listen to male colleagues more than me.” She says it is very difficult for women in her job to reconcile work and family life. “Excellent child care is essential,” she says.

Ana Pérez is an aeronautics engineer. When she studied at university in Madrid, there were only four girls out of the 50 students and now, with 15 years' experience behind her, she is still considered unusual. She works as an Airport Planning Expert at Aertec Solutions, and says there are few female engineers among the 500 employees. As a result she is constantly having to prove to clients that is as qualified as her male counterparts. “Once, a client asked me if had to keep talking to me, because he would rather speak to an engineer instead,” she said.

Education is one of the most powerful tools to close these gaps and break glass ceilings. “This is a social problem,” says Natalia Sánchez of the Business Confederation of Malaga(CEM). “Women should be seen differently and not relegated to the caring roles, otherwise we will be talking about glass ceilings forever and nothing will change.”