Thursday, December 27, 2007

On Glass Ceilings and Slippers

(This is a post I wrote at the very beginning of my blogging career. I still like it as an example of the use of fairy tales, so here it is as a holiday rerun.)

Cinderella's foot fitted the glass slipper and so she married the prince and lived happily ever on. At least in fairy tale terms. But imagine how uncomfortable glass shoes would be, how easily they would crack and splinter around your unprotected feet.

In some ways that's what women in business management wear every day. Their slippers are made of all sorts of contradictory materials: assertive, but not too much so or you'll be called bitchy, nurturing, but not too much so or your capabilities are suspect, just-like-the-guys but not too much so or you'll be called a ballbreaker. That these slippers crack and splinter is to be expected. That they cut the wearer's feet is not surprising.

So what does this have to do with glass ceilings? Glass ceilings are nice, they let us gaze at the sun rays or the moon and the stars, and pretend that there's nothing between us and these vast upper reaches. But of course there is. The glass is there.

Or is it? The corporate glass ceiling is supposed to keep women out of higher management; all they can do is to gaze at the stars. But now some say that there is no glass ceiling that would prevent women from flying straight up and getting a comet named after themselves. Instead, the reason for few women in leading positions is said to be.... Guess. If you are even one tenth as old as I am, you have heard this before.

Well, the blame belongs to the women, of course. They don't want the brass ring hard enough to grab it. They don't want the long hours. They want to be with their children, and to write poetry or ride a horse. They want to go to Africa to cure hunger. Women are just different.

Hmmm. Different from what? Men, of course, you thick-headed goddess.

Aah! That's why they don't fit into the public sector; the public sector was built to fit men's desires. Well, this is really interesting: why doesn't the public sector reflect the desires of both men and women? Why doesn't the fact that children must be taken care of by somebody, that families must at least meet once and a while, that human beings might need to write poetry or ride horses or cure hunger; why don't any of these things affect the way the jobs and the labor market are structured?

Why is a good manager one who has no life outside the job? Who thinks that managers are equally bright and energetic in their sixteenth consecutive work hour as in their first eight? Do you want important economic decisions made by people who don't remember what their children look like, or who haven't smelled at a flower or played a game for fun for decades?
Never mind if they are men or women, I'd shudder if humans took the division of labor to such extreme degrees.

What I see through my divine sight, are glass mountains on which people slip and slide in their glass slippers. Only those who also have glass hearts thrive. Too sad.

The glass ceilings are still there, of course. That so many deny their existence is because they are not there all the time. When some people look at the stars, they can feel the breeze and sense the raindrops, too. They know that the road is open. When others look up, they see the stars but they also see gates and locks, tree-houses with "No girls allowed" signs, preachers telling what good motherhood is, coworkers looking at you askance when you are pregnant and tell that you are coming back, husbands 'helping out' but not knowing if the fridge has milk or what the pediatrician's name is. These people don't imagine things.

It's not as bad as it used to be. Families are more democratic, employers are more open-eyed and many men do their fair share at home. But turning the looking-glass back to face nothing but the women, each alone and separately, is a very cruel thing to do. Women are neither evil step-mothers nor Cinderellas, and the story doesn't reward the one who fits the glass slippers.