Hooray! Glass ceiling has been breaking

There’s still so much gloomy, pessimistic talk about how difficult it is for women to rise to the highest levels of leadership, but I wish there would be less of this poor-us mentality.

Not because I am a chauvinist. No, it is for the opposite reason: it is because what I see all around me is women who have reached the highest levels. And they have not done so either because of or despite their gender.

Overwhelmingly they made their way through life having developed competence and healthy attitudes. Just like most men.

Admittedly there are those, both women and men, who have barged and bullied their way into leadership, and OK there may well be many more men than women who have done so.

But let us stop describing scenarios from days gone by, focusing rather on the great place we have reached, certainly here in Kenya.

It was in 1978 that management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling”, during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in which she noted how the female panelists focused on “the deficiencies in women’s socialisation, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved, and the poor self-image that many women allegedly carried”.

I don’t know about you, but wherever I go these days, I see no evidence of either self-imposed or male-imposed ceilings. On boards where I sit and in my management consulting assignments, around me there are women and there are men.

And the gender of the director or the manager or the technical specialist is irrelevant. Some happen to be men while others happen to be women.

Some of the men are more extrovert and assertive than others, and the same is the case among the women. Both men and women possess varying levels of emotional intelligence, with some more skilled at building win-win consensus, others expecting Trump-like win-lose outcomes.

So I just do not relate to the generalisations we hear so commonly about men and women being “different”, with the assertion that women are “more emotionally intelligent” and “better at bringing people together”. I know plenty of men who display these soft skills more than many of the women I come across… and vice versa too.

But as more women have gained levels of education equivalent to those of their male counterparts, and as they have emerged into workplace environments that increasingly assume gender is not a factor in determining career development, so many have risen up the ranks naturally and smoothly.

For sure there are still far more men at the highest levels, but what we have been witnessing is an ongoing evolution.
Where we are today with gender diversity is so much improved compared to where we were even a few years ago, and the upward trajectory of competent women has by no means tapered off.

So while it is easy — and common — to continue to describe the cup as half-empty, it is much more realistic and helpful to focus on how it continues to fill.

If you restrict yourself to snapshots in time you will still see many gaps and much to complain about. But if you look over time there is much to celebrate.

Of course in the political arena, than ultimate bastion of male chauvinism, the situation is radically different. Yet we must not over-focus on what it takes to survive and succeed in that macho culture where the rough win-lose dynamic of elections is intrinsic.

And we must also accept that in rural areas and in some parts of the country generally — yes, and also in many organisations — it remains hard for women to sit at top tables. But you see my point.

Some of my readers know that I am married to Evelyn Mungai, and I am happy to confirm that she has only reinforced my observations on the contemporary status of women in Kenya (not least herself).

In her recently published book, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies, she included the stories of almost 40 women as they journeyed to positions of leadership.

And let me tell you, I am not at all sure they did so that differently than had they been men.

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