No Image Available

Tara Daynes

Read more about Tara Daynes

Invisible glass ceiling – the hidden side of gender discrimination


This article was written by Tara Daynes, director of HR consultancy Tara Daynes HR.

“She’ll never be a senior manager, because she’ll always put her children before the business.” These words said to me once about a very competent, long-serving middle manager who was also a single mum, but incredibly, they were spoken by a Director who really should have known better. Had I not blown the whistle on this knuckle-dragging employer, the woman in question may never have known that this was the reason for her lack of promotion. She would have been left wondering why, despite her best endeavours and obvious merit, she was repeatedly banging her head against the glass ceiling.

This is not so unusual though. Not only are many women victims of gender discrimination without even being aware of it, but often employers are discriminating with the same lack of awareness. Here are some of the ways that employers may surreptitiously be treating employees less favourably because they’re female – and what HR can do about it!

Inappropriate interview questions
I once had a job interview where, once ended, the interviewer was seeing me out. At this point she (yes, women can also discriminate against other women) casually asked me if I had any plans to settle down and start a family in the near future. Red flag alert! Any questions relating to arrangements or plans regarding families, children, childcare etc. are inappropriate and potentially discriminatory, and this is regardless of whether they are asked before, during or after the interview. Recruiters often make assumptions as to the candidate’s ability to juggle their home and work life, and it’s not our place to do that. We know that, but do our recruiting managers? Make sure they know to just state the requirements of the job and check if the candidate can accommodate those or if they need any support to do so.

If you’re in the interview and the recruiting manager asked any questions that you don’t think relate to your competency to do the job, don’t be afraid to say so. Take them aside and ask “I’m afraid I don’t see how that is relevant to her skills and experience” or “How would that influence your decision whether or not to offer her the job?” If you think they have turned someone down unfairly, ask for feedback so that you can be sure they had objectively justifiable reasons.

Lack of information
Employers should make information on their policies and procedures available to everyone (e.g. in a staff handbook). This includes the statutory stuff, such as flexible working requests and time off for emergencies, family reasons etc. But many employers don’t make this clear, meaning that women in particular miss out because they simply don’t know what they could be getting. Does your company make people aware of their rights and entitlements, and tell them where to go for more details? If not, find out why not! Make sure you educate all staff and managers (or even yourself, if that’s what is necessary) on what leave, benefits, working arrangements, flexibility etc. is available.

Invalid assumptions
As with the Evil Director mentioned above, many ignorant employers will assume that any woman with children will forever be having time off to look after sick kids, that any young(ish) married woman will go on maternity leave, or even simply that women will be less capable than men at anything not involving a keyboard. This is prejudice, plain and simple – but usually ignorant employers are less ignorant of the social/legal unacceptability of their views, at least enough to not share them with anyone. Instead, they just make sneaky decisions that hold women back and then find some other excuse to try and justify them. If you suspect this is happening in your organisation, or even to you, insist on constructive, valid feedback on performance – skills, knowledge, attributes, behaviours etc. – and ask what people need to be doing differently or better in order to be promoted. It should soon become clear where the problem lies!

Rigid rules
I once had a single mum working for me, and I made sure that if she needed to come in late or leave early to attend a school assembly/sports day/parent’s evening, or to work from home occasionally, she was able to. We weren’t talking emergencies here, or a need for a regular flexible working arrangement – just a bit of leeway to make her life easier. And it was great for me, since as a result she was loyal and dedicated, would deliver results and if I needed her to put in a few extra hours sometimes, she was happy to. Some employers though haven’t grasped the benefits of such a quid pro quo agreement, and will strictly enforce rules and regulations such as 9-5 working, giving notice of holidays etc. All of which can have more of an impact on women than men, as we often need that bit more flexibility. If your managers can’t give any reasons other than “That’s just the way we do things round here”, then point out to them how they too can benefit from bending the rules occasionally – a bit of goodwill goes a long way!

Indirect discrimination
This is essentially where a condition is imposed on everyone, but women would be disproportionately affected by it and less likely than men to be able to meet the condition. For example, minimum height requirements for a job (women tend to be shorter than men), or overnight stays required for a business/training trip (women with families may be less able to do this than men with families). If your organisation insists on certain conditions for promotion – such as having to work particular hours – then ask for the business case for that decision, and see if they can really justify it. Suggest ways around it – e.g. job sharing – and suggest using trial periods to see if you can prove your point.

If you come up against a brick wall as well as a glass ceiling, remember that generally the law is on the employee’s side. But before your employees rush off to a tribunal, encourage them to use internal channels such as formal grievance procedures to raise any serious complaints. Be sure whether the problem lies with an individual, or if it is institutional, and see if you can garner support from others within the organisation. But sometimes, as HR professionals, we need to bite the bullet and flag up dodgy practices even if it seems we are being disloyal to our employers. Don’t let your employees, or your own career, be stymied by sneaky chauvinism!


Get the latest from HRZone.

Subscribe to expert insights on how to create a better workplace for both your business and its people.


Thank you.