Reflections on the Glass Ceiling

On International Women’s Day, some of Principle One’s female staff reflect on the realities of the glass ceiling past and present and consider the UN’s theme for IWD 2022 – Break the Bias.


Every so often you find yourself confronted with a reflection of your younger and perhaps more optimistic self. This happened over Christmas to our CEO, Maggie Scott, when digging through a hoard of paperwork at her parents’ house. She unearthed a student magazine article she had written thirty years ago and long forgotten, entitled the Glass Ceiling, outlining the barriers and challenges faced by women in business. This prompted a discussion within Principle One about the realities of the glass ceiling, women in consulting, what has changed for the better, and what hasn’t.


In 1992, despite the 1980s having been the UN Decade for Women and the UK having experienced 11 years under a female prime minister, the glass ceiling still felt very real. In her article, Maggie reflected on three different layers to the glass ceiling that she felt would impact on her ability to have a successful career – the stereotype that a career would come second to caring responsibilities in the long run, a lack of flexibility around working hours, in particular at a senior level, and discrimination, both outright and implied, in the workplace.


To a naïve, ambitious 20 year old set to launch her consulting career, if those could be sorted out (and let’s face it caring responsibilities can seem a very distant prospect at 20) then surely the glass ceiling should be relatively straightforward to break through? Thirty years on, have things really changed for the better?


Tackling stereotypes first, we certainly have a significantly greater number of female role models in whatever field we aspire to work in. In a pre-internet world, those were few and far between regardless of whether they were a few steps up the career ladder or already at the top. While affordable childcare still seems a long way off, we have begun to move beyond the assumption that childcare is just a problem for women. The stereotype of what a successful woman looks like has changed too – there is far less pressure to demonstrate the stereotypical traits of a successful leader and more opportunity to create your own version of what success looks like.


Second, workplace flexibility is one area where we have seen many changes. Part time working is more acceptable and parental leave career breaks for men as well as women have become more common. The pandemic has both helped and hindered women in gaining the flexibility they need. While working from home makes school runs a lot easier, many of us are still trying to block out the horrors of balancing work with home school, where the majority of the burden was shown to fall on women – forcing many to put careers on hold. The concept of ‘default parent’ will bring a rueful and resigned smile to the face of many women who have had to balance a COVID-ridden household against their day job. Moving forward, however, the pandemic has redefined the need to be in the office five days a week, but whether there will be a backlash against flexible working remains to be seen.


Finally, we turn our attention to discrimination in all its forms. Back in 1992, many roles were never advertised, and promotions and senior appointments were made through the various old boys’ networks of clubs and golf courses. Today, there is no shortage of women’s networks, helping promote opportunities and putting women in touch virtually and in person. The value of diversity and no longer recruiting solely in your own image is also better understood so surely workplace discrimination is a thing of the past?


Fast forward thirty years and the view up to the glass ceiling feels rather different. While some of the structural barriers that worried a newly hired graduate consultant have been overcome, many less tangible challenges remain. This is acknowledged in the focus on Break the Bias, the theme for 2022’s International Women’s Day.


While we might hope to have moved past the assumption that the woman in the room (virtual or otherwise) is there to make the tea or take the minutes rather than to contribute as an expert in her own right, it’s surprising how often it’s still assumed that the default position is that a man is in charge.


Maggie Scott

Maggie remembers the first time she was asked to present to a government minister (we won’t dwell on under which government). “As the presentation went on, it became increasingly awkward with every question addressed to the civil servant I was working with, and each time he had to pass the question over to me. He was more embarrassed than I was and apologised afterwards, but it felt that a woman in a leadership role was still somehow unlikely unless signposted in advance.”


And it probably won’t be the last time this happens. “Even last year, I was setting up a follow-on meeting with a client for Al MacIvor, our Engineering Director, and myself – and the emails back made it very clear that I was assumed to be Al’s PA. The most important lesson I’ve ever learnt is to simply develop a thicker skin and the resilience to bounce back from comments that shouldn’t, but do, make you question yourself.”


Laura Russell

Laura Russell reflects on a more overt example of bias when she was speaking at an international conference six or seven years ago. “During a networking event in the technology hall, I was making an introduction between my account director and a senior FBI representative; a fellow supplier in the room was walking past and leaned in as I was making the introduction, to make the comment ‘best in show’ to me solely about my appearance at the event. Reflecting Maggie’s lesson above, I couldn’t let this comment take away from my achievements or professionalism in a field where I have spent years building a solid reputation.”


While women now make up around 50% of entry level consultants, those percentages are not reflected yet at senior levels. Finding your feet and getting your voice heard can be challenging and impostor syndrome, although not restricted to women, is something that is very familiar to many female consultants, especially in the early stages of their careers. Many worry about creating the right impression from the outset - finding how to be assertive without being told you are aggressive, direct without seen as blunt and getting your voice heard without coming across as strident and impatient. It can feel like a careful tightrope to walk – with the greater risk of not getting your voice heard at all.


“I only really became comfortable in my own skin at work in my 40s” Maggie reflects. “I certainly wasn’t before, and it was only after returning to work a second time after maternity leave that I reached a point where I felt less pressure to conform to anyone’s expectations and realised that I could succeed on my terms. It’s probably not a coincidence that I began working with many of those that helped create Principle One at that time. Having a culture that values diversity and is built on mutual respect creates a workplace where women feel they can succeed without compromise or conforming to someone else’s expectation."


Lucy Johnson Perret and Maggie Elstob

Maggie Elstob joined Principle One in 2020, having previously worked in a professional sports environment and has noticed firsthand the bias Maggie and Laura mention is still alive today, with society far behind where we may think it should be. Maggie says “I’ve learnt that having confidence in yourself is key and being the chatty one who remembers the little things means you build trust and can command attention for the big things. Having joined Principle One, I am surrounded by impressive, confident women, all of whom I take advice and guidance from on a regular basis. They have paved the way for women of my age by battling against bias and empower me to aim higher, allowing me the space to be ambitious and strive for success. I don’t have to fight as much to get my voice heard and I am paid equally to my male counterparts – a right that I might not have had thirty years ago. I hope by the time my five-year-old niece enters the workplace, this isn’t even a conversation that needs to be had any more.”


Lucy Johnson Perret joined Principle One in September 2021 and reflects on her experience of unconscious bias towards women from her academic career. Even today, the viewpoint that a woman should either care about developing technology skills, or care about their appearance, makeup and clothing seems to be pervasive in many universities and then transferring into the workplace. “Throughout university, I definitely saw myself and my similarly ‘girly’ counterparts having our contributions to discussions on topics like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning brushed off, despite performing as well academically as our peers” Lucy says. “We shouldn’t have to choose between gaining respect in the industry and how we dress, and one of my favourite things about working at Principle One is that I can be both complimented on my dress and asked my opinion on a big, challenging business problem within two minutes of each other, with all contributions valued and respected”.


“For Ben Sadler, Al MacIvor and me, as Directors of Principle One, one of our goals was to create a culture where we would value diversity in all its forms and create a team where each could play to their strengths.” Maggie concludes. “Our leadership styles were and still are very different but that has probably helped us create a culture where there are no stereotypes or predefined expectations – and certainly not on gender lines. More widely, we will have succeeded in breaking the bias when everyone has equality of opportunity and we no longer feel the need to refer to someone as a female systems engineer or female leader but can value their expertise and achievements in their own right.”