The Glass Ceiling Story

For International Women’s Day our CEO Diana Verde Nieto spoke at a dinner for influential female members of exclusive Marylebone members club, Home House . Inspired by the recent discovery of 500 new fairytales in Germany, Diana asks why it’s always the women that plot and scheme against each other while waiting for a handsome prince to come to the rescue? Equality for women shouldn’t be the stuff of fantasy, but it appears we have a way to go before it becomes a widespread reality. The glass ceiling still exists and although women make up 49% of the total workforce, they represent 59% of low-wage workers. 

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) it will take until 2056 for women and men’s earnings to reach pay parity—if the wage gap continues to close at the same pace it has for the last fifty years. While the number of women in top board positions is on the rise- female representation on the FTSE 100 main boards rose 15.4% last year- the real problem exists one step down, at management level. According to Kate Walsh of The Sunday Times, only 15% of management board roles in the FTSE 100 are held by women- 163 of 1,058 jobs. ‘Since Lord Davies…kicked off his mission to get more women in the boardroom’ she writes, ‘the number at the management level- the pipeline- has shrunk more than 2%’.

In a bid to fill senior board positions, there’s a risk women further down the line are being leapfrogged, and talent is potentially being overlooked. We also have the issue of ‘unconscious bias’ to deal with- namely that people tend to recruit in their own image, and until there are many more of us in these hiring positions we’re at an automatic disadvantage. Responsible companies are trying to address this by monitoring who hires who, and there are mentoring and sponsorship schemes to help women rise through the ranks, but it’s clear if we want this story to have a happy ending there’s more work to be done.

How do you think attitudes in the workplace could be changed for the better?


Positive Luxury CEO Diana Verde Nieto


I had a speech for you tonight – about inspiration and sustainability – and then I read, two days ago, that they’ve unearthed 500 new fairy tales in Germany, all collected by a man around the same time the Grimm brothers were collecting and recording Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Rapunzel.

It made me think. Fairy tale is a strange phrase for women. We are told fairy tales from the minute we can talk – fairy tale romances, fairy tale weddings, handsome princes and going to the ball.

But the older I’ve grown, the less happy I’ve become with fairy tales – in fairy tales women plot and scheme against each other; the ugly sisters beat Cinderella, the queen tries to kill snow white, the witch imprisons Rapunzel in the tower. The only way the women can be saved is by the handsome prince, the man who rides to the rescue.

I don’t think that’s ever been true, but if you were to tell a fairy tale about the past 200 years it would be quite the other way around.

It’s men who have plotted and schemed, built prisons and poisons and tried their best to kill each other and kill the natural world. We’re coming towards the end of the story now and it’s women who need to come to their rescue – to save them, to save our children and to save the world.

Building a sustainable future doesn’t sound as romantic as a ticket to the ball – but if the kingdom has to be saved, we have to work out how to blend the two; to learn how to throw a party that does no harm, to have the joy of music and dancing but leave no mess behind.

There’s another, scientific fairy tale we’re told as little girls that often gets trotted out in speeches like this about sustainability – Women are natural nurturers, we are mothers. Because we provide for our families, women are more careful stewards of natural resources and the environment.

That can certainly be true. Empowered women can have a greater influence on building a sustainable future within their families, their communities and in wider spheres.

Is it fair to say that one of the main reasons that our societies today are at once so palpably unsustainable and socially unjust, is that we have fallen into the trap of “traditional” masculine behaviour and values?

All of us here have achieved so much – and we’ve had to fight for it every step of the way. I’ll tell you my story – not because it’s better than anyone else’s but because it’s mine to tell.

I come from Argentina – just in case you wondered where the dodgy accent came from – my country was under military regimes from 1966, natural resources were a commodity, human rights were violated and freedom was just a dream. I was born in 72, only when I was 10 years old did I taste democracy for the 1st time and from a very early age I showed leadership and passion – and understood that business can be a force for good.

In fact you could say that I started my first business at the age of 10.

The business model of my first business was very simple but, admittedly, not very ethical…

It basically consisted of taking (stealing, really) my grandmother’s jewellery and selling it at school for whatever money I could get from my classmates. Needless to say that the business was not sustainable- I was nearly expelled from school and ended up bankrupt- but to my surprise I was not grounded or punished but instead encouraged to think outside the box. Although – I was warned that if I did something like that again I wouldn’t watch TV until I could afford my own TV (and I’m not making this up – I can still hear my grandmothers words in my head)

Although the business was dodgy, to say the least, my motivation to start it was good – I did it to pay for a camping trip for one of my friends that could not afford it  – it felt good.

And that feeling of accomplishing something for somebody was something that I looked for all my life in every job I did and was not able to find again until I read natural capitalism by Paul Hawken – seriously, I recommend you read it. I knew then that it was possible restore our planet, alleviate poverty, fight for equality through business.

I came to this country for love – that didn’t work out – but I founded Clownfish etc, built an international brand and sold it Aegis 

I guess my upbringing pre-conditioned me to be who I am – and what I will become- I’m not there yet. When I am, I’ll have been the one who rescued myself, who built my own kingdom. It’s not a story of waiting for my prince. 

And what’s the moral of the story? I believe that business can be a force for good.

Is mine a story of nurture, of mothering, of passive healing? In places. But it’s also a story of ambition and dreams and fear and persistence…

Perhaps that’s the most important thing that women bring to leadership – the mixture of ambition for ourselves and for the future. We think longer term, because we are born into a world that doesn’t always recognize our worth.

Of course, today, with more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think that women have gained true equality.

But empowered women – like us in this room – are the lucky ones. Many women are stuck in a vicious web of poverty, high fertility, poor health, environmental degradation and lack of opportunities.

So yes, women must be empowered – as ambassadors of natural resources and the environment and as contributors to socio-economic progress if the earth is to be sustainably developed. 

When a girl gets a chance, gets educated, stays healthy and HIV-negative, marries when she chooses, and raises a healthy family, she can raise the standard of living for herself, her brothers, her family, her community, and her country.

Although the relationship between economic development and ecological impact is highly complex, it is fairly clear that as nations grow wealthier, their environmental impacts also grow. While female empowerment might speed economic activity and thereby enlarge ecological footprints, better informed economic choices made by women also mitigate the impact of that growth on the environment at discrete stages of development.

In the developed world our challenge is different. We have to take responsibility for our careers… but that is not always easy. There is an ambition gap – this gap exists because woman at early stage of development are not encourage to be as ambitious as men. It’s those fairy tales again – the pretty girl who doesn’t talk much gets the handsome prince. The pushy ugly sisters get nothing at all.

Ambitious women are labeled as bossy and pushy – when a men with the same characteristics are powerful and efficient.

We have to tell our daughters stories of ambition and dreams – encourage them to see all things as possible.

Woman can achieve great things, education is key but dreaming and ambition is equally important. God knows, the world needs changing.

So start now. It can be something so tiny – Help educate a girl in the developing world… Because we’re women, think about the big picture, the long term and make sure we don’t slip back into easy attitudes that because we have good jobs then all the big battles are won. We can’t wait for the prince, we have to rescue the world ourselves and then – my beautiful, ugly, angry, funny, silly, wise, strong, frail, messy, doubtful, proud and powerful sisters – we can all go to the ball.

Caroline Freestone

Caroline is an English graduate from Bristol University, with experience in fashion and beauty journalism for a number of on and offline publications. With previous work experience in events and PR she is currently the Web & Social Media Editor for Positive Luxury.