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Published on Mommy Tracked (http://www.mommytracked.com)

The Glass Labyrinth.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner

 

Not sure about you, but one phrase I’d like to mothball for 2011 is “glass ceiling,” that invisible barrier preventing women from achieving the pinnacle of career success. Many women have shattered the glass ceiling, making the metaphor moot even for those determined to break through to the echelons of their profession. Millions more don’t care to, finding greater value instead in a pragmatic balance of economic security, job satisfaction, and time with family.

 

This is not to say gender bias and barriers do not exist. They do. These stubborn, pernicious obstacles have derailed many smart, ambitious, well-educated women. However, the more apt term heading into 2011 is “glass labyrinth” – the confusing maze of bias and solutions confounding women at all career levels, ethnicities and ages.

 

Fortunately, in a recent issue of Forbes, Joan Williams, the founder of the UC Hastings Center for WorkLife Law [1], and author of Reshaping the Work-Family Debate [2] supplied a few powerful torches [3] to lead us out of the darkness.

 

Here are Joan’s three formidable resolutions for 2011 – backed by 35 years of gender research.

 

Get serious. Don't accept any assignment on top of your existing workload – particularly a feel-good assignment targeted towards diversity -- unless your organization values the contribution enough to devote a budget and administrative resources needed to implement it.

 

At my most recent job, I was asked to pinch hit for a woman who’d recently been fired for ethics violations. No increase in salary. I remember feeling immensely flattered that my bosses believed I could do two jobs at once (while I was pregnant with baby number three). I was sure they’d reward me come bonus time. Looking back, part of why I was asked was because I was a new employee, and thus too naïve in corporate practices to ask for a salary or bonus bump. Other employees wouldn’t have been so trusting.

 

Sure enough, I never got financial compensation for working two fulltime jobs at once. Two years later I had to force my way off the ridiculous double job burden. The moral of the story? If your organization values the increased responsibility, they’ll pay for it. Additional responsibilities may well hurt your career if they require you to spend time, with administrative support, on activities that distract you from activities the organization truly values and rewards.

Challenge work devotion. Most traditional organizations reward historically male models of talent and workplace dedication. Large numbers of women cannot succeed at work without new paths to success that include flexible work schedules and more creative definitions of workplace contributions.

 

Look around work: Are most of your bosses men married to stay-at-home wives, or men or women without children? If so, an unstated requirement for leadership is breadwinners without family responsibilities, the implication being that success is built upon ability to work demanding, unpredictable schedules, rather than on raw talent. This narrow definition of "work devotion" requires women--but not men--to give up conventional family life. Find a company with a more open culture and leaders with a range of lifestyles.

 

Avoid, confront and eliminate the four most common forms of gender bias:

 

* Prove it again. Caucasian men get an automatic vote of confidence from day one at work, while women and minorities have to prove themselves again and again. Women's mistakes are black marks, remembered forever; men's are usually forgotten or explained away. Women's successes are chalked up to luck, while men's are attributed to skill. (How often have you heard successful women say, “I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity.” How often do you hear successful men attribute their prowess to luck?) Objective rules are applied rigorously to women, but far more leniently to men. The results are a baffling, demoralizing mix of frustration, anger and dejection that comes from playing a rigged game.

* Maternal Wall. Motherhood triggers powerful conscious and unconscious negative competence and commitment assumptions. Think about colleagues who question whether an expectant mother (but not father) will return to work, or that boss who decided to decrease your colleague’s direct reports while she was on maternity leave as “a favor” to her. This maternal “wall” is the strongest form of workplace gender bias and is a glass labyrinth in itself. Studies have shown that mothers are dramatically less likely to be hired and promoted, and held to higher performance and punctuality standards, than women with identical resumes but no children.

 

* Double Bind. To succeed in most corporate cultures, women have to display a canny, disarming mix of masculine and feminine qualities. If a woman is “too” hard-driving, blunt and confident, she’s seen as lacking the social skills for promotion. A woman who is “too” nice, deferential, soft, cheerful, and feminine, is seen as lacking the objective qualifications and drive for leadership. My motto? Wear some article of pink clothing every day…and apply for plum assignments and negotiate for more money at every annual review.

 

* Women vs. women competition. If your organization has historically had only a few female or minority leaders at the top, you may understandably get the impression that to get there yourself, first you need to eliminate all female contenders. Don’t let gender bias cloud your competitive spirit. Focus instead on changing the culture by supporting talent over gender, by supporting and promoting other talented women and diverse leadership skills…including your own.

 

Charting your own path through the glass labyrinth of gender bias is not easy for anyone. Remember: you’re in good company, with more and more women increasing their education levels and flooding the working world. With increasing diversity of our population and economy, come increasing diversity in terms of success. You get select your own personal definition of “success” when it comes to work and family.


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