Glass Ceilings & Chandeliers | Leading Like a Lady

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Glass ceilings and chandeliers. Two striking metaphors for some of the things I’d want to discuss about women in power or leadership.

I learned some interesting things researching the phrase “glass ceiling”. It became well-known in the 1980s and it’s been reshaped a couple of times to depict what we would now call intersectionality (shout out to Kimberlé Crenshaw, Black female lawyer, who created that term).

Without the awareness of different ways people experience obstacles, the glass ceiling became this ubiquitous yet limited illustration of what women deal with when pursuing professional goals.

But before digging deeper into that, the more important point in having this conversation involves recognizing why any kind of barrier exists, and who truly has the power to move it out the way.

You may not like this answer but, it’s men. Men who conform to an agreed-upon patriarchal way of operating in the world have to move the barrier out the way. 

That doesn’t mean women don’t play a role in this. That role includes, most of the time, making it abundantly clear that barriers exist and demanding they be moved.

But as part of my research for this topic, I learned to accept what we can realistically expect a woman to do within a society built on the trashy habits and traditions made by men. 

It’s not an impossible task, and I constantly feel the need to qualify everything that I’m saying because there might be feminists reading this that say anything men can do we can do better. And those women may interpret what I’m saying as men ARE BETTER AND MORE CAPABLE than women.

Absolutely not. I believe in the definition of feminist dictated by my idol, Chimamanda Ngozi Adidchie, which is “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” 

What I’m also saying is that, in order to meet this definition of equality, men have to believe the same thing. So once again, only men can remove the barrier they created that is working against this definition of feminism. 

Having said that, let’s go back quickly to a notion I brought up earlier, about the different ways folks (folks being women) experience these barriers. Because if you want to get rid of something, you have to be able to name that something

What exactly is the barrier? How does it appear or show up in different situations?

The term “glass ceiling” initially came from two Wall Street Journal writers Carol Hymowitz (a white woman) and Timothy Schellhardt (who I swear I couldn’t find a picture of online, but I’m bet money was a white man).

According to an article in the Washington Post, many groups didn’t believe “glass ceiling” adequately described what was actually going on. For example, some Black women said you might as well call it a concrete wall because we can’t even see through to the other side to imagine what we’re aiming for and how to get to it!

That’s the exercise women need to do collectively in demanding equal treatment to men. There are different categories for women experiences, whether we acknowledge that or not. 

Black women vs. white women (based on the American construct of black and white). Then African women vs. Black American women, African women vs Afro-Latino women, and etc., etc…

I can appreciate the concrete wall analogy quoted in the Washington Post. However, I think the full scope of the problem is underestimated when we focus only on describing the ceiling. 

Some of us can’t just get through the door to start climbing in the first place.

If we are going to use the ceiling analogy, I’d describe it as Plexiglas. We can very much see what’s going on when we look up – as a matter of fact, I think the goal is to discourage us by letting us see what we’re missing out on…to remind us that that’s “not our space” to be in. 

It’s Plexiglass that you can see through and designed not to break easily or at all because it’s one of many other levels of privilege.

Ceilings aren’t just the upper interior of the room. They’re also the floor of the rooms we’d walk around in if we were upstairs. 

It’s a starting point for most (i.e. men) even though it looks like the final destination for others (i.e. women). 

Once we get through the door, barring our racial/socioeconomic/gender roadblocks to the entrance, we can all look up and see the ceiling very clearly. 

It would be tempting to break it rather than demand that the house is redesigned in a way that allows us to walk up past the ceiling, continuing to advance through the multiple floors as we wish.

We don’t necessarily want to break the ceiling, unless we’re talking about bringing down the whole house and building from scratch. If that’s what you’re trying to do then you, again, need to convince the men who enjoy being at the top to join you in demolishing this system.

That’s definitely one option I’d LOVE to see play out. 

What’s another one, just in case?

We install chandeliers when we manage to at least touch the ceiling. We innovate, decorate, make living right at/underneath the ceiling a more attractive vibe. 

This circles back to my other point about the different types of women, who all have different needs regardless of whether the ceiling or beyond it is our ideal destination. 

It’s safe to argue that the type of women who’ve managed to at least touch the ceiling are mainly white. And they do a pretty good job of decorating the ceiling already – but to THEIR TASTES.

There’s no consideration of putting up chandeliers and, heck, why not moulding, that make the experience enjoyable for more than one type of woman. 

This all assumes that these same (white) women have also held the door open for and given a ladder to the other women groups mentioned, helping them reach the same heights. If they do, and when we’re all there at the top, how accommodating is it for all of us?

I’ll move away from analogies and make it more plain now: we need the most privileged women to not make the experience of climbing the professional/corporate ladder exponentially miserable for women with less privileged opportunities. 

We have to stop with the microaggressions. 

We have to stop seeing another woman’s rise as a threat to our ascension.

We have to proactively collaborate on (re)building the infrastructure of the house – whatever and wherever we can – to make it feel more like a home where every woman is welcomed.

It can feel exhausting trying to uplift others while you find a way to lift yourself, which is probably why many of us default to self-preservation. I promise you that is less interesting and provides no more of an incentive for those above you (i.e. white men) to make your professional advancement any easier.

What I do know about the privileged is that they thrive off of theft. They create a standard, and when it seems the people they’ve left out of that standard found a way to innovate, create something way more appealing and interesting, they come down to try to steal it or convince you to sell it to them cheap.

That’s where the chandeliers come in. Let’s make where we’re at so attractive, so monumental with the gifts and resources we have collectively as women that those at the top have to ask BUT WHO IS MAKING ALL THAT NOISE DOWN THERE? 

They’ll have to pay attention and see what women (as a diverse, multicultural unit) can create without their help and right beneath their noses. 

Then we have a bargaining chip, where we can negotiate the terms of how we rise up further, beyond the Plexiglass, or decide to demolish and rebuild the entire structure to make it truly a good fit for us all.

What does the chandelier at the ceiling look like to you? What innovative ways have women neglected to make being at or just beneath the Plexiglas ceiling a monumental step forward for advancing equal opportunities for ALL women?

Toa Jibu

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