Sunday, March 29, 2009

On Ceilings and Elevators

Reader and fellow blogger Lucy invited my commentary on someone's recent blog post regarding "glass ceilings." The entry is brief, and the author concludes that "There is nothing stopping a person from moving up in the ranks...except for the person him(or her)self."

I suppose that I shouldn't be too shocked that the author feels this way; however, I can't help but feel...disappointed that the concept of the glass ceiling is lost on this woman. The concept of glass ceilings and elevators (I'll get to what these terms mean in a moment) are not particularly new, and because of this I have taken for granted that all women are able to understand the role that these concepts play in their lives and the lives of all women. I do not know if that author will read this blog, but I'd like to offer a deeper understanding of these concepts for anyone who struggles with their existence.

The term "glass ceiling" refers to, as the blogger stated, an unofficial barrier to advancement in the workplace. It is "glass" because it does not exist in any obvious capacity: There is no "No Girls Allowed" clause in the company handbook; nor is there any official policy that overtly prohibits women and minorities from rising in the ranks. We have "equal opportunity" statements on our employment applications, as well as government policies like Title IX. By all accounts, it does not appear to exist. But like the windows in my home that trick wayward birds into smashing their little bird skulls, the ceiling remains in place.

If you squint your eyes and crane your neck just so, you can still see the light reflecting off the glass:

The wage gap between men and women, especially in the upper tail of the wage distribution, is a large part of the glass ceiling. Currently, American women make 70 cents for every dollar that men make. Although this gap has closed over recent decades, it remains significantly large and persists across professions and education levels. This means that when scientists compare men and women, within the same profession, with the same amount of experience and qualifications for that profession, women receive less pay than men. Blatant pay discrimination such as this can go undetected for years, because we are taught that it is impolite to ask your colleagues what they make. Pay is considered private; therefore, women get the shaft and often have no hard evidence to make their case.

Wage gaps also occur when employers make judgments on the expected value, productivity, or reliability of employees. What this means is that it is not uncommon to find employers promoting men over women because they hold pre-conceived notions about how well women work. For example: As a woman, Kathy will become too emotional in business confrontations. Better go with Ross or Fred; they won't cry over firing someone. Get it? As people, employers often have unenlightened notions about how women act and how men act. Even if the fictional Kathy is completely capable of making decisions, firing employees, and dealing with conflict, her employer may assume that she can't BECAUSE SHE HAS A VAGINA. The female is then excluded from the 'male' job, and left with depressed wages.

Another theory for discriminatory promotion is that employers view the jobs that females hold as "less easily promoted." This means that employers may be reluctant to invest training in women in order to promote them. Employers may feel this way for any number of reasons, but commonly they feel that women are less worthy of investment because of their expected domestic roles. Let me break that down for you: We aren't training Becca for the role of regional manager, because she just got married and will probably have a baby soon, and will take maternity leave. Because our society is geared to think of the women as the sole domestic provider, women are likely to be passed over because of expected familial duties; whereas a man's marriage and paternity are rarely-to-never considered.

Other barriers make up the glass ceiling in addition to the wage gap. Sexual harassment, for instance, isn't going anywhere. Workplaces in which women are belittled or made to feel inferior because of sexual harassment are not conducive to promoting women or hiring them for top roles. Let's not forget about general perceptions of female to male performance. Numerous studies have found that traits in which we view as positive for males we view as negative for females (sum this up as if a man is assertive, he is seen as effective; however, an assertive woman is a "bitch" or "shrew.") Sexist stereotypes like these, which are embedded in our social hierarchy, often prevent women from reaching the upper eschelons of the workplace.

As if a hulking wage gap, sexual harassment and sexual stereotyping wasn't enough, women often must contend with barriers involving family and domestic life, while men do not. This is a very rich and complicated topic, but can be easily understood when you understand that society places overwhelming domestic responsibility on women, but almost none on men. We are given the expectation of caring for the homes and children, as well as other family issues, and as a result we take jobs with fewer hours and flexible schedules. These jobs offer less pay, less room for advancement, and less prestige. As long as society asks more of women in the home than it does of men, we remain stagnant.

All of these theories deal in the present; however, I have my own theory that the glass ceiling begins in childhood. From an early age, women are encouraged to achieve less than men. We give little girls kitchen sets and "pregnancy Barbie" dolls, but we give little boys Erector sets and chem sets and other mechanical things that help them learn and grow. We see that our daughters excel at math and we assume they will be teachers when they grow up; but our boys who excel in math will surely be engineers. The difference in treatment is often subtle, but the way we raise our children has as much impact on their future earning potential as do sexist workplace attitudes.

I'm also quite fascinated by the concept of the "glass elevator," which I think might be easier to see than the glass ceiling. By "glass elevator" I am referring to a phenonmenon in which men in female-dominated occupations experience various advantages that women in those occupations do not. So, in contrast to the glass ceiling, in which women suffer in male-dominated occupations, men in female-dominated jobs will enjoy advantages in hiring practices, rapport-building with male supervisors, and promotional tracking. The best example of this concept is the teaching profession, particularly elementary school. The primary-school teaching occupation is heavily female dominated; depsite this, elementary school principals and administrators are overwhelmingly male. Research shows that men who enter the profession as elementary school teachers are often "fast-tracked" to more prestigious and higher-paying adminstrative positions, while women who have equal or better qualifications remain. I know that this concept is not outdated, because I did a research paper on it last year in which I took the 2006 annual averages of employed persons by detailed occupation and sex from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and compared them using prestige scores from the Hollingshead Four-Factor Index of Social Status. My results very much supported the hypothesis that current labor data reveals male-favored occupational prestige inequities in occupational domains containing two or more heavily female-dominated occupations.

The topics of ceilings and elevators have spawned oodles of academic papers and studies, and in this post my goal is to simply touch on some of the main fruits of that research...I couldn't possible cover all of it in one post. I can only assume that ignorance of this research, and possibly personal anecdotal evidence, leads people like our blogger friend to assume that nothing stands in the way of female success. Trust me when I say that we aren't simply whining: These barriers to advancement are VERY real and felt by MANY women. Our society has not yet evolved to offer women truly equal opportunities in the workplace; although outwardly it might seem that we can achieve anything, in reality we face many obstacles that men never will. Many of these obstacles are so deeply ingrained in our society that I question whether we can ever completely overcome them.

If the author of that blog post feels that no one has stood in her way in her career advancement, then good for her. She's apparently found something that millions of us, myself included, struggle for daily. However, I think it's good for everyone to keep in mind that simply because they have not personally experienced limitations, that experience does NOT generalize to the rest of the population. We have not "shattered" the ceiling; there may be cracks, but trust me when I say that it is still far too thick to fall apart.


Lucy said...

I knew you would have the information and could write it up perfectly.
Thanks. I will suggest she give this post a visit.

The information on the glass elevator was very interesting. I had never heard that term before and really never even thought about it. Being a former teacher you think I would have noticed that most administrators are men and the majority of teachers are women and yet you start out as a teacher. Doesn't add up does it?

Jenni said...

I am the author of said post, I think I had clarified my viewpoint a bit with Lucy, but in through emails so not in a public way.

I did clarify that what I was saying specifically to the shattered glass ceiling was in refernce to what a person had said in a training I attended.

I also clarified with her that it is something that I can easily be a bit one sided on for several reasons; the main one being that I work in a field dominated by women. As a matter of fact, in my agency alone (more than 100 employees) there are only 4 men working for us; my husband works in the same field as I do and is the only man in his company. Looking at it, I know he has hit that glass ceiling many times over.

I do think that in many industries there are struggles for different reasons (gender, education level, etc...); I know, however, that I haven't experienced it.

I don't necessarily think that "nothing" stands in any one particular persons way; but I do think that it is easing up a bit. I also believe that as younger generation begin taking over the work force we will see a huge difference.

I do appreciate your commentary on the subject; as I mentioned to Lucy, I don't have scientific evidence to back up my statement. I'm glad you had the evidence to bring to the table.

Phoebe Caulfield said...

Ah, thank you for the clarification, Jenni. This post wasn't necessarily aimed at you, I intended it more as a catalyst for discussion on the topic.

Jenni said...

Hey, I appreciate it greatly. I do know that I live in "My own little perfect world" so to speak at times; and I do know that I get spoiled in an industry where much of the typical struggles are the exact opposite as the "real world".

As I told Lucy, I love the constructive and respectful conversations that are meant to open others' eyes to things they may not have seen otherwise (myself included). I love that my eyes were opened to struggles I wouldn't have seen otherwise.

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