Drawing on her own experience in a male-dominated business, as well as over a hundred interviews with both men and women, alumna Sue Unerman has written The Glass Wall to provide easy-to apply strategies for success.
CEO of cinema advertising giant Pearl and Dean Kathryn Jacob (left) with Sue Unerman at the launch of The Glass Wall
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
Bookshops will position the The Glass Wall as ‘self-help’, because it aims to offer practical help to women amidst the complex and (still!) monstrously unequal gender thickets of the workplace in 2016. Co-author and Chief Strategy Officer of the UK’s largest media agency MediaCom, Sue Unerman (Mansfield, 1979), notes in a interview conducted for this feature, ‘I don’t want one woman out there to be frustrated about something they can manage.’
But the book is bigger and better than its categorization, which doesn’t do justice to the entertaining –and often enthrallingly frank- first-person narratives that stud chapters dealing with everything from ambition to creativity, resilience and anger. Co-author Kathryn Jacob, CEO of cinema advertising giant Pearl and Dean, and Unerman interviewed over one hundred women for the book. While there is a bias towards the for-profit, corporate media sector in which both authors work, that’s part of the attraction – there’s a hint of Mad Men here and as such the book’s an entertaining peer over the wall from any adjacent or non-profit sector, even though some of the interviewees were drawn from charities, government, and the NHS.
Nor does the categorization convey the underlying seriousness of The Glass Wall, which partly rests on bespoke research commissioned by the authors about men and women’s attitudes to work in the UK, the USA and Russia. It ends with ‘41 Strategies for Success’, as every self-help book must, yet this is trumped, actually, by the very interesting research produced by LightspeedLLC, which follows in an Appendix. Apart from many other things, that research shows how gender-determined the US continues to be despite in so many other ways being perceived as a progressive country for progressive issues including gender equality.
Even as I sit down to write this review, a new, large survey has just been published, Women in the workplace 2016, covering 132 US companies and produced by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.Org with consulting giant McKinsey & Co. On the most basic issue of representation, the results continue to be utterly depressing. The report shows women under represented throughout the workplace at every level from the lowest rung to the boardroom. At the very top level, where your job title begins with the word ‘C’ (CEO, CFO, COO, CSO, etc) just 18% of employees are women, and if you throw in colour as well as gender, the statistic plummets to a barely believable 3%. Turning to the UK, a recent Financial Times report shows that in the first half of 2016, fewer than one quarter of directors at FTSE 100 companies were women. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, auuthor of a Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
The Glass Wall could go further in addressing the additional barriers that can come with race and sexual orientation. It can be just as awkward dealing with inappropriate banter if you’re a gay man or woman, while it’s been suggested that women of colour face a concrete wall, never mind a glass one. Yet the book is full to the brim with insight and (often implicitly) practical career advice for every conceivable group or identity, not least men. Again and again and again, communicate the authors and their interviewees, the problems arise not from individual men, many of whom are exemplary, but from structures and cultures that still permit noxious alpha behaviour. That then becomes problematic if you’re not part of it.
Discourse on the subject of women in the workplace often raises the subject of "masculine" versus "feminine" attributes, with advice often leaning towards instructing women to think or act "like a man." The Glass Wall provides some uncomfortable examples of what this approach might entail. For example, there is a case study on a woman who found herself in a male-dominated, hierarchical, linear organisation, stuck beneath Geoffrey who indulges in client lunches and golf to keep the clients happy. To get ahead she waits until he goes on holiday, to Australia as luck would have it. For three weeks. She convinces Geoffrey’s boss to hand her Geoffrey’s biggest client, with a bit of nonsense to the effect that the client hadn’t ever really warmed to Geoffrey (not true). She impresses the client and sidles over into the commanding position. When Geoffrey returns and demands his client back, she tells him to ‘f*** off’. The authors note with what comes across as dry wit, ‘Roll on a few years, and Geoffrey is no longer in the industry.’ Is this anecdote more uncomfortable because a woman has acted in an underhand way, employing aggressive behaviour typically seen as "male"? Would the same behaviour in a male simply be seen as Maverick, part of the dog-eat-dog corporate world? Unerman says, “I wouldn’t recommend that particular strategy [lying] to anyone, but if the system in your workplace is a game then you need to know how to play it and win.” This approach is what makes the book stand out from the genre. It isn't a book about how to be a nice woman or how to get ahead by acting within the confines of traditional attributes assigned to women. It is too simplistic to suggest that there are modes of male and female behaviour, especially when in other aspects of life women are often associated with aggression. It's a book about getting ahead in the workplace, recognising that the workplace - and life - is not fair, polite or egalitarian.
However, the authors don’t expect women to adopt these behaviours at all costs or to perpetuate a macho culture. Why on earth should they have to? There is a counter-narrative, the senior manager who, as she reaches the top rung of seniority, realises that she can be twice as effective by dropping some of learned, ‘macho’ stuff, acquired over many years as a survival technique. There is a tension between doing what is necessary to get ahead but recognising how to change the work culture - from within and from a position of power.
The original term ‘glass ceiling’ is attributed to Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard, who in 1979 cited the stark difference between written codes of equality and actual chances of advancement for women at the US tech giant. That was thirty-seven years ago. The idea of the glass wall, here in 2016, is premised on the fact that while the impenetrable ceiling may have gone (or at least we are familiar with the notion of its absence, which is not quite the same thing), the workplace remains partitioned by a glass wall:
You can see through it, to the meetings that you’re excluded from or the casual conversations that accelerate careers that you aren’t participating in. Men and women can see each other very clearly through the glass, but they don’t speak the same language or have equivalent cultural expectations. (p.8)
If Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has recently acknowledged that the workplace keeps ‘pushing back’ for every effort of women to ‘lean in’ – a reference to her 2013 book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead – Unerman and Jacobs’ book is a British contribution offering a ‘we-should-be-further-down-this-road-than-we-are-by-now-in-2016’ assertion of the need of women and men to adopt straightforward new behaviours to address all the bad stuff that keeps refusing to go away. The tone of the book is not angry but confident, and persistently honest, and extremely attentive to the fact that higher profitability has been shown to correlate with increased diversity. Unerman reminds me that Grant Thornton research demonstrated significantly increased profitability for British, US and Indian boards with women on them, when compared to male-only boards. One reason is that male-only boards are vulnerable to hierarchy, and too-easy consensus.
On the subject of banter, which is just one example of the sort of workplace problem that numerous women find uncomfortable but feel powerless to address, the advice of the authors is to give as good or better than you get, at the very first sign, or to address it head on and say something. But don’t ever suffer in silence. They note in another case where the most senior man in the room is intent on belittling a woman, that her best bet, then, was to be humble, given that he outranked her by several levels; instead she hit back and was shown the door, leading to a predictably traumatic conclusion. Choose your battles carefully, they suggest, and no, the book is not in thrall to someone else’s theory and neither is it advocating Pankhurst levels of insubordination. But it is insistently, brilliantly good at calling out what Unerman calls ‘toxic alpha male behaviour which tends to engender similar behaviour in those who climb to the top under the current systems and cultures but does not generate good business or sustained profitability.’
This is perhaps the ultimate insight of the book, that, as Unerman puts it in conversation, ‘I think the issue is not strictly speaking one of gender as such.’ It’s not about men versus women, but appropriate behaviour resulting in inclusive organisational cultures. Regrettable as the need is for this sort of book, today, when all these issues were supposed to have been addressed ages ago, it’s a brilliant addition and deserves to be widely absorbed and acted on.
Dr Richard Lofthouse (LMH, 1990) is editor of Oxford Today