I have often used the term ‘grass ceiling’ in conversations with women I have mentored. I’ve used it in the context of living in dairy country with lots of green grass. The fenced pastures around me always show me their natural beauty. Yet in other ways they are a reminder that we can be fenced in by our own and others’ attitudes and perceptions. The grass ceiling is a play on words, based on the glass ceiling. Women are hitting the glass ceiling in regional areas in my view more often than their city sisters.
I have always treated the term in a light-hearted way. Some years ago, when a woman I mentored told me she thought it was helpful – and one she would always remember – I started to think of it seriously. I started using it in speeches, in wider conversations, and in my writing. It started to have a deeper meaning.
What I’ve discovered is that other writers had used the term in different contexts. Angela Pippos wrote about the grass ceiling in her book. Pippos covers the extraordinary transformation taking place in Australian sport where women are competing for a fair go. My research led me to academic work undertaken in the late 1990s by Margaret Alston. Alston’s grass ceiling was a compelling read. It was a powerful description of the challenges facing rural women.
When Alston published her book Breaking through the grass ceiling: Women, power and leadership in agricultural organisations in 2000, I wonder if she thought that 16 years later the issues she raised would still be as relevant?
Alston’s book drew on extensive interviews conducted in 1997-98 with Australian women engaged in agriculture as leaders, farmers, and bureaucrats, and with chairs of boards developing agricultural policy. The book explored discriminatory treatment of rural women and the need for many of them to work what she termed ‘quadruple shifts’ which included farm work, paid work off-farm, child care and housework.
As far back as the Karpin Report in 1997, increasing women’s access to decision-making in rural areas was a human rights issue. More critically, women’s participation in the rural economy was known to improve Australia’s position and performance in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
While a lot has changed and there are many more women working and governing in rural Australia, many still experience frustrations in what they see as a lack of career choice and lifestyle options available to them.
It’s no longer the elephant in the room – it is talked about openly. There are many resources for women about how to enhance their career prospects. Rural women tell me they feel much of this advice is aimed at their metropolitan sisters who have many more choices. In my view, there are several factors at play:
- a fixed vs growth mindset;
- an external vs internal locus of control;
- understanding of our own values;
- perceptions of choice; and
- preparedness to be visible.
For the women I work with across regional Australia, real change occurs when they open their minds to the options available; know their own values system; are willing to explore outside the ‘small pond’; and can create their own visibility. Possibilities they never thought of before start to arise.
My passion is seeing women achieving the things they aspire to. That means getting the jobs they want, meeting the people they want to influence, and having fulfilled lives. I help women flourish in their careers. It’s like helping women cut through their own grass ceiling to step out onto the manicured lawn of their choosing.
 Pippos, Angela (2017) Breaking the Mould: Taking a Hammer to Sexism in Sport. Affirm Press. Melbourne
 Alston, M. (2000). Breaking through the grass ceiling: Women, power and leadership in agricultural organisations. Routledge.
Maree McPherson, founder of Maree McPherson Consulting, is a leadership coach, facilitator, speaker and author who works with corporate organisations, not-for-profits and individuals. In her practice, Maree helps people aspire beyond what they think they are capable of.
For more details about Maree and the services she offers, you can visit her website www.mareemcpherson.com.au. Maree’s book is available for purchase via the website. Maree can also be found on