Never mind the glass ceiling – what about the basement?

Laurie Penny, blogging for the New Statesman this week, writes: “Don’t worry about the glass ceiling – the basement is flooding.”

She argues that campaigns to increase diversity among senior management in the City of London and in the boardroom are “arrant twaddle” and based on false logic.

“Trickle-down feminism is as nonsensical a liberation strategy as trickle-down wealth redistribution,” says Penny. “The problem with a glass ceiling is that nothing trickles down. While we all worry about the glass ceiling, there are millions of women standing in the basement – and the basement is flooding.”

For all the leftish, anti-establishmentarian rant about “corridors that ring with the clatter of Manolos on marble”, has Penny got a point? Is our focus on improving access to the top layers of management irrelevant to women at the base of the pyramid?

Some years ago, an influential study by Shannon L. Goodson, the behavioural scientist, looked at the professional careers of 11,500 women and 16,700 men in 34 countries. It concluded: “Women did not create the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier blamed for limiting their ability to earn what they’re worth, but they help maintain it” by thinking that self-promotion is “morally suspect, socially unacceptable and unladylike”.

Goodson found that women who had reached the C-suite tended “to take the ladder with them”, failing to promote junior women.

We know that while women enter the workforce in equal numbers to men, they vaporise steadily from the management hierarchy at each promotion, but I doubt that most women who now make it through actively sabotage the careers of women behind them.

The chief executives I interviewed for the FT’s top 50 women in world business were acutely aware both of the people who had helped them scale the ladder and of the importance of encouraging younger women to do the same.

Penny says “a few more skirt suits in the palaces of finance” will not “deliver the change that women need”. While cultural change is both difficult and slow, the power of leadership to accelerate change should not be underestimated, and that will help bail out the basement.

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