The glass bottleneck


Typically; it is white men who are in and around this bottleneck

I’ve always been slightly sceptical about the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’. It’s not that I don’t recognise the hidden barriers that exist for people from non white, non male backgrounds and prevent them from rising to the top of organisations. The evidence that shows this is incontrovertible; although the situation is improving.

Instead, one objection to the term is that it just seems a bit definitive. After all, if there was a ‘glass ceiling’ we’d have no women or people from black or ethnic minority backgrounds in senior management; and whilst we don’t have enough there are definitely some.

The other objection I have to the glass ceiling concept is that when referred to (usually in the short-hand rather than academic versions) it occurs at just the moment that the amount of available jobs shrinks. We have maybe seventy service managers in my local authority; maybe twenty senior managers and four directors. If we were to place the ‘glass ceiling’ at the senior management level that would represent just 1% of all staff in the local authority. You can see this two ways; firstly you could argue that it is only natural that discrimination shows up at that level as this is where it matters most. This is probably right and has been written about in plenty of other places.

However, I am interested in something else which seems more self evident than the glass ceiling:

Of course some staff will find it difficult to progress when the number of available jobs at the next level shrinks so quickly (hundreds into seventy; seventy into twenty; twenty into four; four into one).

I have taken to referring to this problem as the glass bottleneck.

The thing about the glass bottleneck (after all this is my concept so I can define it as I want!) is that it doesn’t just focus on  those staff from minority backgrounds (although the fact that women are still part of the ‘minority’ is of course ridiculous)but on all staff and it is increasingly becoming more of a problem.

If you are a talented member of staff who wants to make the most of their career it can be fairly easy to move quite quickly through the organisation or even between organisations. Jobs are available, turnover is relatively high and the skills needed can be quite transferable.

However, this suddenly comes to a stop when you reach the service manager or senior manager level of the authority. Suddenly, the ambitious member of staff is confronted with just the top 5% of the local authority and many of them are not going anywhere quickly. Even if they do the amount of jobs on offer at the next level up are relatively small as many of them are extremely specialist. For example, I have a friend who, despite being at a non-managerial level has just three roles in our council he can move into. After that there would be just one if he is not to move out of his specialist profession.

The reason that this is getting worse is, as with much of local government at the moment, cuts related. Many local authorities have taken swathes out of middle management. The logic is that middle management is relatively expensive (compared to more junior staff) and proportionately carry out less front line work. Cutting middle management assumes that they are not carrying out valuable work (not true; the idea that managers are unnecessary drags on the public finance is patently silly) and still has a major impact on the council’s ability to operate but that is the product of another day’s post.

The reason it matters here is that the slashing of middle management has made the glass bottleneck even more severe. A senior social work manager I know has had to remove most of his managers and is really concerned about the impact on his remaining staff. Those that are ambitious have fewer jobs to aim for. Those who might have considered trying for management no longer have any incentive to try and reach that goal and it is difficult to make a convincing argument about why our local authority is the long term career for these staff.

The glass bottleneck is thus becoming a bigger concern and runs the risk of cutting off a whole generation of talented middle managers who might decide to do something else or give up on promotion full stop.

Can anything be done about it?

I’m not sure but if local authorities were to offer more secondments and management placements, develop more of their senior jobs in such a way that they are open to generalists and generally do a better job of plotting more varied career paths for their middle managers.

Either way, the glass bottleneck is a real problem and one of the many new challenges local authorities will need to address in the coming years.

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

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2 Comments on “The glass bottleneck”


  1. [...] I look above me in the local government food chain I see a decreasing number of roles, all of which bring far more [...]


  2. [...] no doubt do so again.  We’ve even begun wondering whether or not we’ve reached the glass bottleneck, and whether actually we needed to find some sort of specialism if we were to have any chance of [...]


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