Who’s Responsibility is Breaking the ‘Glass Ceiling?’ It Shouldn’t Be All Mine.


I take issue with the “glass ceiling” concept, and not for obvious reasons like limited mobility for women and people of color to get that corner office. I hate how the name itself, meant to identify the inequality and change it, perpetuates the power dynamics by retaining the inequality. Having a “glass ceiling” to fight means we focus on breaking some invisible barrier, rather than challenging the living and breathing power players to confront their own role in this system of economic inequality.

Earlier this year, I attended a conference on diversity in digital media where one panel addressed the low numbers of women and African Americans in the industry, specifically in places like Silicon Valley. During the discussion, all of the resolutions centered around aspiring employees doing the majority of the legwork to fit into a nebulous company model and find the right mentors. In addition, the women and people of color already “in” should lend a helping hand, which is good, but what about the digital companies? What about leadership’s responsibility to make sure their organization is a safe and open environment that attracts and retains diversity? Shouldn’t they have to put in some work too?

We’ve got corporate diversity programs, though. That helps, right?

That said, representations of women and people of color have gotten better and diversity programs at major companies like Google and General Mills have helped. Oprah’s rocking her media empire on Forbes, Marissa Mayer heads up Yahoo (while pregnant, though that news headline ended on a sour note recently), Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg declaring that women “lean in” for success … oh, and a black president. But if American society is making all of these strides without actively changing our culture’s values, the prevailing way to get ahead will continue to be through learning and conforming to the rules of the current game that requires us all to think and act like white men.

In Forbes, Glenn Llopis writes why corporate diversity programs are wrong-headed in that respect, saying, “It’s misguided because it comes with an assumption that the potential employee must change to fit into the current workplace culture.  This attitude implies that the employee lacks something that he or she needs in order to succeed and thrive in that culture.”

Why’s it called a glass ceiling, anyway?

The 1995 Federal Glass Ceiling Commission’s official definition is “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.” Yet, from my perspective as a woman of color, the inequalities are quite tangible and very visible. So to whom are these barriers intangible and unseen, exactly? That would be to the white men who make up the majority in these coveted, glass-protected places of leadership, and who have the privilege to not think about race or gender in their everyday lives, if they so choose.

Why is it the burden of those without privilege to change the system? From the African American burdens of double-consciousness to code-switching to communicate and exist in American society to elsewhere in pop culture, where women must think like ladies but act like men to find love.

While we’re bruising ourselves with this fight against the glass, those on the sidelines can sit and watch, and perhaps congratulate us when we arrive. But few allies think to shatter glass in the first place, and that’s where I take issue. Shattering the glass would mean acknowledging white privilege and patriarchy, and thus inequality, which can be uncomfortable for those who rely on those very social constructs to achieve and maintain their positions of power.

Feminist and anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh writes in her well-known essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” that “the pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”

Her words offer up a hard truth, but it’s necessary and shouldn’t be optional for a privileged few to acknowledge, if they’re in the mood.

Sociologist Erin Cech reminds us “we can’t assume that anybody understands the basis of inequality. It has to be something that people are taught to see and understand, or else they [may] behave in a way that reproduces that very structure.”

I acknowledge the allies who understand their privilege and are working to remove the glass ceiling, but it’ll take many more white male allies intentionally reflecting and owning their roles in America’s social construct of race and economic justice. My request? Ditch the words “glass ceiling” for “white privilege,” “patriarchy,” or a “brick wall,” but without effort from both sides of the line, it’s all just talk.

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