Smashing the glass ceiling: The skills you need to break through in your career

Kiwi workplaces still face noticeable inequality when it comes to representation at executive and leadership levels.

When discussing gender equality in the workplace, the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ is often referenced. This glass ceiling is basically an invisible but powerful barrier that stops women – and a diverse range of marginalised groups – from progressing in their careers and being promoted to leadership roles.

With statistics from New Zealand’s Ministry for Women highlighting the fact that women account for only four percent of company CEO’s nation-wide, and only 19 percent of senior management roles, it’s clear that although things are improving, this glass ceiling still very much exists.

How the glass ceiling impacts us

The fact that gender inequality still exists in the workplace – particularly at a leadership level – has a profound effect on both women and men. It means that organisations miss out on the many benefits of having a diverse workforce, that progress is slowed, and that younger generations don’t have examples to look to in their own careers.

Nicola Laver, Client Engagement Specialist at SEEK, explains how a lack of gender equality in leadership also contributes to reinforcing existing stereotypes that work against successful women.

“Biases, stigmas attached to stereotypes and invisibility of women in leadership roles all contribute to gender inequality,” she says. “There is a male association that’s attached to success, whereas typically successful women are painted as overly ambitious, assertive, abrupt, arrogant, and direct. That’s because there is a real lack of visibility.”

It’s not just gender that can be impacted by this glass ceiling, with many intersecting identities adding further barriers. As only the second woman and first ever Indigenous person appointed to an executive role at Australia’s premier sporting organisation, the AFL, Tanya Hosch, Executive General Manager of Inclusion and Social Policy at AFL, learnt early on in her career that these biases meant the cards were stacked against her as both a woman, and as an Indigenous person.

“In my early 20s I felt that the men in my peer group, Indigenous men that I was working with very closely with at the time, were genuinely supportive of me,” she says. “But I noticed that when it came to opportunities, they weren’t being offered to me.

This made me realise that even given the loyalty and respect my peers and I shared with each other, the world was still going to honour the male contribution over mine. So, it was really up to me to find ways to challenge that.”

Skills you can use to smash through the glass ceiling in your career

Recognising that the glass ceiling exists and impacts us all is one thing, but how can you confidently smash through it? While it’s challenging, there are skills you can use to elevate your career despite the social barriers in your way.

1. Turn negative stereotypes into positive strengths

Stigmas against successful women being too ‘assertive’ or ‘pushy’ do exist. However, to smash through the glass ceiling, it’s important to not let these negative connotations hold you back.

Hosch says this can mean recognising attributes that have typically been seen as weaknesses, as strengths.

“I’ve realised that one of my greatest qualities is being stubborn,” she says. “Stubbornness is often framed as a negative trait, but for me stubbornness has really helped me to sit through the discomfort and move through to the other side, believing that if you keep working at it, something will change.”

2. Recognise and respect reciprocity

Hosch believes that one of the reasons that the glass ceiling still exists is because it’s about power, and “people don’t give that power up willingly.” Knowing how to share that power equally is not only advantageous when you have it, but on your way to the top, too.

This can be done by practicing reciprocity throughout your career.

“One of the great cultural traits of Indigenous people, and a lot of different cultural groups, is the concept of reciprocity,” Hosch says. “In my role at the AFL, for any change to occur it requires people to back my leadership, to listen to my advice, and to act on it.

If I want people to be open to that, I need to be able to collectively work together with them. Whether it’s to run a community, a house, or a business - reciprocity is really important.”

3. Know when to lean on others

Part of building skills that will help you smash through the glass ceiling is knowing you’re not in it alone. As Hosch explains, having people in your life that you trust, including mentors, gives you more opportunities to keep growing.

“I’ve had mentors my entire career, some more formal than others, and I think that’s invaluable,” she says. “In all the times I’ve reached out to people and said, ‘I need some help’, I can count on my hand the number of times someone has said no. It’s amazing how generous people are.”

4. Work on your listening skills

Even if you think you’ve got listening skills nailed, as Hosch says, “we can all benefit from continuing to work on our listening skills.” That’s both because it’s such an invaluable asset, and because it can sometimes be the first thing to go when under pressure.

“When there’s so many competing demands in the workplace, listening is something that goes out the window,” Hosch says. “Listening is one of those things that we take for granted, but some of the best people I’ve worked with are just great listeners.”

5. Know yourself and what you need

To be able to be successful in your career, one of the best investments you can make is to understand yourself and your needs better.

As Hosch explains, “we ask a lot of leaders for their input, but what we don’t necessarily do is allow ourselves the chance to say, ‘I need help’, or ‘I need this’. Learning to ask for that without the overhanging guilt or sense of failure by asking for help is incredibly important modelling for teams and for people.”

You’re not alone in wanting to smash the glass ceiling

Being part of change can feel isolating and overwhelming. However, it’s important to remember that you’re within of a greater community of people who want to see equal representation across Kiwi leadership.

For Hosch, it helps her to remind herself of the change that’s already occurred under her leadership, and what’s still to come.

“After 5 seasons at the AFL I can absolutely identify the changes that I contributed to, and it helps me ‘maintain the rage’ in terms of wanting to see more change.

One of the things that I take away from strong Indigenous women who have led us across this country is that it’s never going to be easy, and we all have to do our share of the lifting, but you don’t have to do it alone. We’re part of a continuum of change.”

Read more: