This obsession with perfection (just have a look at your latest glossy magazine or a TV ad portraying a successful businesswoman juggling children, homes, fashion and friendship) is partly why so many women’s leadership trajectories stop at middle management, their aspirations crashing into the glass ceiling. Coined by two Hewlett-Packard staff members, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, the “glass ceiling” is commonly defined as the barrier between middle management and top management positions, and is shorthand for what’s arguably the most difficult period for any leader. Middle management is a time of extensive staffing and budgetary responsibilities, limited freedom to make your own choices, and few opportunities for relief or assistance. It also tends to coincide with the phase of life where you want to have children (or child number two) and build a home and family. One of the most instructive—and stressful—periods in a managerial career, this phase helps you move towards the next step.
If only you never fail, and at the same time create a perfect home and family life, right? Wrong. Attempting a perfect performance as a middle manager won’t guarantee success, because it assumes that any failure is a barrier to career ascension. It may, however, guarantee insanity. This is the key element of the glass ceiling for women in Norway—and yet, women around the world face more than one ceiling. One is the ceiling they often create for themselves—interpreting imperfections as disqualifications for leadership positions—and the other is one that’s built with poor work-family policies, or a lack of policy entirely.
If you sign up for a leadership position (and remember, this is a personal decision), you are guaranteed to meet defeat and opposition on your journey. Encouraging women to understand that is key to filling the ranks of top spots: That takes the focus off of failure and success, and shifts it instead to thinking about making an impact in a position.
A lot of women in Norway—and around the world—get that, but not nearly enough of them. As the CEO of Innovation Norway, the Norwegian government’s instrument for the development of new industry and enterprise, I can tell you that being a CEO is understandably not for everyone, man or woman. And that’s okay, as long as it’s your own decision. Enduring long hours, setting strict priorities, and focusing on making a difference, rather than obsessing over perceived missteps, is a daily challenge.
It’s also hugely risky. For example, there are almost as many women as men in employment in Norway. But we still have a relatively segregated job market, gender-wise: 70 percent of the start-ups in Norway are run by men, for example. The fact that 48 percent of women and only 19 percent of men work in the public sector might also indicate that women are more prone to choose job security over the private sector, which is vulnerable to downscaling, cost-cuts and competition. It is also a challenge that 34 percent of the female workforce have part-time jobs.