Revisiting the Glass Ceiling
by 
Marilyn Loden
 
 
 
    In 1978, I was asked to join a discussion panel about women’s advancement sponsored by the Women’s Action Alliance , Inc.(WAA). The panel was part of a larger “Women at Work Exposition” held in Manhattan and featured many feminist speakers, HR managers and researchers discussing the changing roles of women. 
      The panel I was part of was titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.” The description in the program read: “Messages of limitation which confront women and the effect on aspirations.”  As it happened, I was the last speaker to present - which afforded me the opportunity to listen to the interpretations of the topic by other panelists including women from The Feminist Press, PEER, Citibank, the WAA Non-Sexist Child Development Project and Working Woman Magazine. As I listened, I noted how the panelists focused on the deficiencies in women’s socialization, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved and the poor self-image that many women carried. Based on the commentary, it appeared there was consensus that women were inadequately socialized for success and limited their own career aspirations due to low self-esteem. 
       It was a struggle to sit quietly and listen to all the criticisms. From where I sat, very little of the panelists’ commentary pertained to my observations or experience as a professional woman manager.  True, women did seem unable to climb the career ladder beyond the lowest rung of middle management and there were certainly moments when I had seen capable women managers filled with self-doubt about their own abilities to “do the job.”   However, while the general lack of advancement was evident, it seemed to me the causes were very different from the ones enumerated by my fellow presenters.
       Given the title of the panel and the tone of the discussion thus far, I chose to talk about a different barrier to women’s success – the resistance in organizations to feminine leaders that prevented women from moving beyond the middle.  In particular, I discussed the biased attitudes held by many male managers about their women colleagues, the fact that many women managers were paid less for the same work, the spotlighting of women in male-dominated roles for any failure but seldom for their successes and the lack of role models and emotional support that these women lived with each day. In my summation, I stated that while low self-esteem might be an issue for a few, the “invisible glass ceiling,” i.e., the barriers to advancement that were organizational not personal, was having a much greater impact on women’s career aspirations.
       These comments drew some surprised looks from the other panelists but the response from the audience made it clear that my words had struck a familiar cord.  Until that moment, it seemed we were relentlessly blamed for our lack of progress because, as women in a man’s world, we didn’t “dress for success” or “play games mother never taught us.” 
         The experience of being on that panel helped clarify my own understanding of what needed to be done to increase opportunities in management for women and other minority groups.  It also helped crystallize my thinking about the real root causes of lowered aspirations among women. The fact that the glass ceiling went on to become a popular term for describing those root causes suggests that for many the concept had a powerful “ring of truth.”
        On May 24, 2008, the term “glass ceiling” will be 30 years old.   While some would like to declare the era of the glass ceiling as being over, institutional barriers to the advancement of women and people of color remain surprisingly strong in many places. Let’s hope this changes in the coming decade – and that a new lexicon is finally needed to describe the next era of women – as acknowledged, respected, transformational leaders in business, government, academe and society.