The glass ceiling: Beyond the myth vs reality debate
From faint realization to resigned acceptance, scintillating controversy to passionate debate and finally vehement denial, the concept of the glass ceiling has been through defined and yet overlapping phases. While none of these phases (even that of denial) essentially negate the existence of this almost mythical transparent barrier that morphed like a chameleon to suit itself to the requirement of every phase, it does make one wonder. How can something invisible and made of something as brittle and fragile as glass be powerful enough to hold back a whole section of the corporate world? The question is not whether it’s a myth or a reality but rather why it’s a topic of discussion at all.
Through the looking glass
In a world that’s essentially inclusive and prides itself in breaking multiple barriers, what incomprehensively strong, bullet-proof glass is this ceiling made of? We live in a world where the workplace has 4 generations, 3 genders, varied cultural and linguistic groups, 3 collars (blue, white and pink!) and an amalgamation of very different working styles. It is, in other words a progressively individualistic workplace where everyone has the right to be (and mostly is) regarded as a person – a who rather than a what. Is the debate over the glass ceiling truly anachronistic in such a workplace? Maybe, maybe not but I might as well go out on a limb here and suggest that it was a reality, is not yet a myth and a lot has changed since 1986 (when the expression “the glass ceiling” first appeared in the Wall Street Journal). Not everything, but a lot for sure. Rather than debating and deliberating on what is and isn’t, why not work towards a happier workplace for all irrespective of which section of the population they belong to?
Marianne Williamson is often quoted across very different contexts but I think the following thought holds very true in terms of our present milieu. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us… As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” What is it that is withholding us from liberating ourselves and realizing our true potential? A puny, invisible, glass wall?
The boss card
Think of two bosses. Boss A is someone who believes that men and women are different and thus perform better in certain specific roles. Boss B believes that while men and women are different, acumen, capacities and capabilities are not gender-specific and thus thinks that roles should not be designated based on gender. It does not take rocket science to understand which of these bosses would condone or even justify the presence of a glass ceiling. Maybe then this restrictive wall exists based only on who your boss is and who you work with.
This becomes even more apparent when we hear of conflicting views from women in top positions. While some claim to have faced no special resistance on account of being a woman in their climb up the corporate ladder, others have narrated the many hassles and hurdles they have tried to overcome often in vain. Regarding each situation objectively and in isolation is often an ordeal and we tend to generalize. We are either given to believe that all women battle discrimination at work and are prevented from meaningful career growth with one-off cases of a few lucky ones or we tend to think that all women get unbiased and equal treatment at work with only a few stray cases of discrimination. Over-simplification is, after all, the cardinal flaw of intellectualization.
A state of mind
That brings us to yet another dilemma – that of the glass ceiling being a mental construct driven by emotions and sentiment. As a man deliberating on this, I know I am probably inviting considerable scorn but the point is that even individuals who have not faced discrimination I terms of career growth themselves, do believe in the glass ceiling as well. It seems to be a belief rooted in vicarious experiences. The overt portrayal of the glass ceiling in media has also been responsible in forging our perceptions. While I understand that media is a reflection of life itself, it is often a subjective superlative reflection.
I realize that these views might be taken as blatant negation of the glass ceiling but that is not my intention. This is not an existential debate. It is about understanding why it came to be in the first place, understanding it better and then working towards ways in which the further damage to a healthy diversity quotient can be alleviated.
Breaking the ice
Whether it’s a strongly held perspective, a blind belief, a justified opinion or even an agnostic view so to speak, if the glass ceiling is something that demands understanding. How can an organization tackle the issues with regard to this glass labyrinth of sorts?
Transparent policies – Processes, policies and people go hand in hand. A transparent barrier that obstructs progression and becomes a hindrance to happiness at work, can be dealt with transparency across levels. When there are zero-tolerance policies in place, employees have a sure idea of values that permeate all functions and levels and cannot be compromised with at any cost.
Merit-based appraisals – A diverse workforce requires objective evaluation metrics and appraisal systems that are merit-driven and value-oriented. That is the only way that employees have faith in the system that they are a part of. Organizations have been known to not only to provide discrepant pay-packages to male and female employees but also to deviate from standardised rewards and recognition schemes. Making sure that this hiatus is bridged is a good way to start.
Effective Mentorship – Building mentoring relationships is a great way to not only ensure that every demographic section of the workforce feels involved, but also to optimize on diversity. Moreover, regular and reverse mentorship programmes encourage a culture of healthy dialogue between senior and junior employees irrespective on gender and make them realize that they have resources in place who can groom them for more evolved roles.
Creating a culture that goes beyond biases, discrepancies and discrimination might be easier said than done and truer to blog pages than to actual functioning organizations. That said, it is not an impossible ordeal. Diversity at the workplace today is the norm. The glass ceiling is (even if it does exist) after all, just glass and can be broken. We have all the pieces of the machinery in place. All we need to do now is learn how to run this beautiful kaleidoscopic mechanism.