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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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.