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I love the sound of breaking glass - slippers, ceilings and cliffs

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If I asked you to name something made of glass, what would it be? My guess is that wine glasses and windows would reign supreme among adults, but if I were to ask a young girl, she might instead opt for a glass slipper. We all know the story of Cinderella, a tale handed down through the generations and most famously brought to life by Walt Disney. Cinderella is a poor young woman, mistreated by her stepfamily. She escapes a life of drudgery thanks to her fairy godmother who magically creates a beautiful gown and accessories, allowing her to attend a ball at the palace and capture the heart of the prince. The nature of her fairy godmother's magic forces Cinderella to leave the ball early, but luckily for her she leaves a glass slipper behind, enabling the prince to track her down – no, not using DNA but the fact that this young woman’s feet are an unusual size so nobody else can wear the slipper. Reunited with the prince, Cinderella can live off his wealth, the apparent definition of being “happy ever after”.

Glass may have saved Cinderella, but in today’s workplace glass is a more threatening substance for women. It can hold back a promising career in the form of a ceiling or a cliff. The glass ceiling provides a glimpse of what could be, in the form of promotion, but its strength makes it hard to break. A woman who manages to break it becomes vulnerable not just to the glass falling on her from above, but because she may then find herself on a glass cliff. In other words, having achieved promotion, she finds that the organisation is failing and needs heroic effort if it is to be saved. Depending on how you look at it, either she has been set up to fail/fall, or her promotion is a last-ditch attempt to do something radical in the hope that it pays off.

In the course of my research on corporate value and board composition, I have looked at the data on corporate performance and the presence of female directors on boards. Looking at FTSE100 firms over the period 2009-2017 I noticed that the proportion of women on boards followed an upward trajectory, but that up to 2012 the companies most likely to bring more women to their boards were the ones whose performance had recently deteriorated. Yet from 2013 onwards it was the improving firms which led the way in terms of board diversity. What changed? Well, in 2011 the Davies Report was published. It called for better representation of women on boards and subsequent reviews established specific targets for board membership. You might dismiss it as circumstantial evidence, bit it looks as if the report contributed to a partial fall if not a collapse of this particular glass cliff.

While we can celebrate the fact that women no longer need to rely on glass slippers for material well-being, and are finding it easier to navigate the ceilings and cliffs, what about other groups? People with protected characteristics don’t feature in fairy tales in the west – at least not in a positive way – so have not been seen as beneficiaries of the glass slipper, but they have and do suffer problems with ceilings and cliffs.

During the summer of 2021 we as a nation applauded the achievements of Paralympians and enjoyed the spectacle of Pride marches. Our celebration of difference should not be an annual event. We need to recognise the value of diversity in the workplace and ensure that we do not create barriers of any shape, size or material that prevent other human beings from achieving their potential and contributing to the success of our institutions and economy.

Published 20 September 2021
Article Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

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