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The Glass Ceiling…  


By definition, the Glass Ceiling is “an unacknowledged barrier to advancement in a profession, especially affecting women and members of minorities”.  


This is a phenomenon that has existed for… well, what feels like forever, however the phrase itself wasn’t coined until 1978 by Marilyn Loden. She used the phrase to refer to the common experience of women being unable to advance to higher leadership or executive roles in their careers due to the cultural views and expectations of the group as a whole.  


Since then, the theory has been explored, rebuked, denied, theorised, weaponised, you name it. Most of all though, the experience is still a commonly lived one. But why? 


And what is it about that specific description that is so unnervingly accurate for so many reasons? 


The reference to Glass indicates that the barrier itself is transparent. We can see what we ‘could’ achieve, but there is a forcefield in place keeping us out – one that is hard to discern, and therefore we can’t easily problem solve or “get around” it.  This view becomes a constant reminder of what we do not have, and seeing which people have risen to that higher floor in the building (both figuratively, and often physically) is salt in the wound.  We see this phenomenon most obviously in the workplace when women are reticent to celebrate the success of another woman, often believing that they did something untoward to get there… why her and not me?  How?? This surely is a key reason why this ceiling is made of glass – to rub it in.  


But the use of Glass to build our metaphorical Ceiling has significance in other ways too.  


For one thing, the idea of breaking through a glass ceiling is dangerous. Not just for the person who does it, but everyone around them. Those underneath it are at risk of suffering further from having it fall on them. Those standing above it bear the fear of falling through it and landing on the shards below.  So no matter where you are in the hierarchy, we watch those embarking on this venture with some trepidation.  


This can lead to toxic reactions to changing dynamics of success.  The culture of men not wanting to give women a seat at the table reflects their concern that the man has to lose something in the process- ie there is only so much space available on this glass ceiling – the idea perhaps that the glass can only hold so much weight before it breaks so if someone comes up, someone must go down.  Whether it be a position, a reputation, or an expert standing, the risk to their underlying identity and self value is enough to destabilise even the most comfortable of humans.   


The fear of the fallout of breaking through can also weigh heavily on an individual – is it worth it? To be injured in the process, to drop the glass on those below, and potentially to get to the other side only to sit with people who are now feeling like they have to slowly try to push someone else off to stay on top.  What is up there that will make all of that worthwhile?  


Perhaps this comes down to the question of whether we believe it can be broken and what happens after.  If the aim is to “break” it, then once broken, do we not all end up on the same level anyway?  Or are we trying to break through to join the “better life” on the other side, in which case, the ceiling has to stay in place. And we become one of them.  


Going back to original consideration of ‘why glass’, it may be worth stopping to consider whether our vision is in fact distorted?  


Like a window, we assume we’re all seeing through it clearly.  But often the glass surface is uneven or curved, patterned, dirty, tinted, or reflecting something on our side of the glass. So is what we are seeing at all representative of what it’s like up there?  Could it even be an overlay of what it’s like here, where we already are?  And do those above actually have a view through the proverbial glass floor with the lights reflecting down on it?  Who knows.  


Which begs a further question- if the glass is so clear, how do we know it’s even there? We can’t deny the significant discrimination and systemic flaws that limit and control the growth of certain people in almost every environment.  But is it possible that sometimes, it is not a true barrier, but a figment of our own minds. That we have created this obstacle (or at least part of it) to make sense of our choices and fears, and if we walked up to it and pushed, we’d discover we’d just fall straight through.  


So, what do we do now with this Glass Ceiling? Maybe to start with, rather than thinking we have to break it, we can see it as testing to see if it’s actually there- being brave ourselves and walking up to the apparent line to see if there is something stopping us … And when it is, perhaps there is a way we can break it without too many casualties – by coming at it from all angles.  That the people above, below and ready to smash through are all made aware, so all the roles we play in building this barrier are visible.  In shouldering the responsibility we have in reinforcing it, dismantling it, maintaining it… maybe we can slowly and safely bring it down together. Ironically, this working together to achieve something, or rather lack thereof, is why it is there in the first place. So, like so many other things in this world, it’s starts with us… all of us.  Let’s step off the top, support it from underneath, cut around the edges, and lower it to the ground, so we can all stand on it together.

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