Is there still a glass ceiling in the world of technology? I don’t believe so, but I believe that there is a fragile glass floor. In order to reach success, every person needs a firm grounding, a support structure and the platform from which to push off to reach their own level of success.
In my experience I have found that many women in Technology have built up beautiful fragile mosaic glass floors. The biggest square is often motherhood, that square is the most fragile as it is underpinned with a lot of guilt, expectations and enormous demands on time and emotional energy. I look forward to the day when both mothers and fathers are asked the same question– how do you manage work success and parenthood – not just how do you manage work success and motherhood? Unlike most men, women are plagued by what feels like competing responsibilities between their professional and personal lives, crippling the search for work-life balance.
This fragile motherhood glass square starts to get shaped at a young age, defined by gender based roles and culminates to significant decisions such as career choices. IT is known for long and often unsociable hours, which can put female school leavers off choosing this as a career path. To me the biggest issue is one that women are so good at developing themselves – guilt! We are set up for this – with questions such as “Are you going to be a Career woman or a Mom?” frequently being asked! Imagine asking a successful Businessman – “Wow – you are having a baby. Are you coming back to work or are you going to focus on being a Dad?” Every one of these questions is like a jolt to the heart and without even trying, erodes the fragile floor and puts an extra layer of guilt on!
18 years ago, the day after giving birth to my daughter, my second child at the age of 33, I received a phone call from my boss with the fantastic news that I had been promoted to the position of a Vice President at the company I was employed at. I was ecstatic and at that stage I was one of the youngest female Vice President at the organisation. What I did not realise, is that with the birth of my second child, the finishing touches to my glass floor had just been put in place.
Five months later, after returning to work, utterly exhausted with two young children at home, I mistakenly walked in a door, fell over, while wearing my suit and curled up and fell asleep on the floor. Not exactly a picture of a successful executive! I was so determined to be the best mom, the best manager, the best wife and to prove to the world that I could do it all, that I totally wore myself out. My glass floor was cracking. I was up at night every two hours, doing all I could to keep my badly lactose child out of hospital, and at work and I felt I had to show I deserved the promotion, with a dev team in India, an Ops team in London and my test team in Dallas – working hours were interesting. Children like technology are very demanding and don’t tend to behave on command. I was constantly consumed with guilt – while at work, I was guilty that I was leaving my children, while at home, I was worried I had not finished that last bit of work. I’m often asked by younger women for just one tip or piece of advice and it is usually around – loose the guilt! Put things in place that you can be focused on and don’t believe the media on multi-tasking – it is not efficient.
It is interesting now, 18 years later, still in IT, that some of the challenges that I experienced then still exist today. Managers can be very supportive of hiring women and supporting their promotions but I still often heard it said that while they would love to put a woman on the board, they can’t find any. Many women themselves don’t want to be in the senior positions, especially in IT where it is technical and there can be quite pressurised demands on time. Women can often feel they must choose between work and motherhood, with social conditioning encouraging women to put home before career and I believe that this can cause women to reduce their employment, which in turn can lead to a restriction in career opportunities and advancement.
So how do we fix this? How do we all help to provide a solid foundation not a glass floor? To start, we need to unpack, realise how negative it is for us; and remove the guilt. In the words of one of my most admired authors “We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.” ― Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Once aware, we as women need to start to change – we need to change our own attitudes as a start, towards us and towards other women! We need to put support structures in place that allows us to fully focus on work and then to trust our support structures. We need to put firm boundaries in to try and assist in “Being Here Now”. A coach I worked with explained that I should only be called at work by my childminder if the same call would be made to my husband. After taking offence, I absorbed it and realised that in order for me to succeed in a highly demanding position, she was correct. I also needed to focus on my children, my mum and any other aspect of my life fully when I was away from work. Once again – the advice from my coach – pretend that you are on a golf course and focus your attention so fully on your activity at hand. No multi-tasking allowed!
As managers we need to celebrate the difference and additional support young mothers often need, knowing that by investing in young women, the rewards in our industry will be that “executive boards” have a selection of women to put into that next position and the excuse of “We have a mostly male board as there are no women to choose from” is truly a thing of the past.
Instead of trying to remove the fragile glass floor, what we need to do is strengthen it, put strong beams across, built up of support at home and at work. As women we need to assist and support each other, stop laying additional guilt on. We need to plant our feet on the beams and look down and appreciate the beauty of the mosaic which is our life and then use the beams as paths into even better and greater things.