Is a marble or glass ceiling harder to break?

"Charging Bull" and "Fearless Girl" face off against each other in New York.

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As Tracey Spicer pointed out earlier this week, less than 3 per cent of Australia’s public monuments depict famous women. She also noted the troubling statistic that worldwide there are more statues of animals than there are of female historical figures. The phenomenon’s been termed the “marble ceiling”.

A marble ceiling – even the metaphorical kind – would be a lot harder to shatter than a glass one, one might think.

Firstly, it is more difficult and rare to achieve something so extraordinary it’s worth immortalising in stone, than it is to be recognised for your business acumen and achievements or competence at work – right?

Secondly, many of our statues come from the deep, dark past, from times when we know women were actively excluded from obtaining many public honours, including – but not limited to – having one’s likeness carved from expensive stone.

Those are logical arguments, but if we turn our attention from the marble ceiling of yore to the glass one of today, we find it very much intact and seemingly just as solid.

Gender diversity data from the Australian Institute of Company Directors show that among this country’s 200 richest publicly-listed companies – the ASX 200 – just 25.4 per cent have female directors on their boards – a figure that has climbed a teeny 0.1 per cent from last year.

Still, one in four may not seem like bad odds, until you consider that 64 of those companies have just one female director.

And there are 11 companies out of 200 that have appointed no women at all.

The AICD’s target of 30 per cent female representation on the boards of the ASX 200 by 2018 is unlikely to be met, according to its chair Elizabeth Proust who delivered the sombre statistics last month.

In March this year, a separate study revealed that a man named Peter or John is 40 per cent more likely to be at the helm of a company than any woman, no matter what her name.

We know that Australian women are graduating from university at higher rates than men, so it doesn’t seem reasonable that there are not enough highly-educated and well-qualified females out there to fill more senior executive roles.

It doesn’t seem reasonable because it’s not. The real reason women are still shockingly under represented both in stone on our streets and in seats in our boardrooms is gender inequality, and the insidious stereotypes too many of us still hold to be true at some level.

Women are not advancing as fast and as far as they should because they are still not perceived to be as competent as men.

Clementine Ford this week recalled the story of a UK writer who sent the same manuscript to 25 literary agents as “Catherine” and to another 50 as “George”. “George’s book got 17 responses, whereas Catherine’s – her actual name – received just one,” she wrote. 

This happened in 2015, not in the olden days when women didn’t rate book deals, statues or much else.

Lastly, a sobering fact: we know there is a direct connection between gender inequality and violence against women. Nicole Kidman this week used her Emmy award speech to highlight that the abuse suffered by Celeste Wright, the wealthy and successful character she played in HBO series Big Little Lies, exists “far more than we allow ourselves to know”.

As we begin correcting the prejudices in our boardrooms – and our schoolrooms, newsrooms and sporting club rooms – we can begin to prevent violence against women by addressing its drivers.

Our Watch was established to implement evidence-based programs to do just that. We know it will take a long time; years, decades, perhaps generations, but we are already seeing some progress.

The marble and glass ceilings may seem impenetrable today but the values that underlie them – while hard to change – are not set in stone.

Mary Barry is CEO of Our Watch, the national organisation to prevent violence against women and their children.

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