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Revisiting the Glass Ceiling

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Being a role model is equal parts who you are and who people hope you will be. -Meryl Streep

Does the Glass Ceiling Really Exist?

A few years ago I was asked if I thought the glass ceiling was a myth. Part of me thought, "You cannot be serious." The more thoughtful, rational part of me knew that it was a legitimate inquiry from a person whose career experiences had been much different from mine. It was a learning opportunity for both of us that led to a great discussion of the challenges facing women who aspire to top positions in their chosen fields.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the term 'glass ceiling’. It is the metaphorical name for an invisible barrier that has prevented women and some minorities from reaching the top echelons of organizations. It has been in common use for about thirty years as women joined the workforce in greater numbers and began to realize their potential for professional growth, yet struggled to be seriously considered for the highest level executive positions.

I believe the glass ceiling has existed, and continues to exist in some fields, but I also believe that things have changed significantly for the better. Women have worked to earn their spots at high levels and little girls grow up expecting that they can be Supreme Court justices, U. S. Senators, corporate CEOs, and four star generals. They can also be artists, authors, teachers, and truck drivers. It’s exciting to see the possibilities for all young people and to know that their ambition will not be limited by their gender.

Who Should Encourage Ambition?

When I was young, around the third grade, I wrote an essay about my father's garage and my ambition to be a truck driver. I grew up in a fairly traditional, gender-biased world and therefore had my young ambitions trampled on regularly. My dad told me that driving a truck was "no job for a lady." Of course, I was always quick with a reply, and immediately responded that this would be no problem since I had no intention of becoming one. I'm pretty sure he tried not to laugh. What he did, which was so great at the time, was to offer other alternatives for me to consider, such as owning a trucking company.

Of course, I had no idea what the trucking world was really like. Until I learned how to drive, it also never occurred to me that a truck driver might need a good sense of direction and the skills to back up a trailer, both of which seemed to have skipped over me completely.

I had the good fortune to benefit from the struggles of many women before me. Later, as a confident college student at what was once an all-male school, it never truly occurred to me that "having it all" might be really difficult. I was accustomed to proving myself, and as I did, most males were not only kind but also encouraging. There may have been grumbling on campus about sexist professors and the "old boys’ network," but my college experiences felt like opportunities to show that I belonged.

Find Your Tribe

One of my best and most unexpected challenges in college happened in the gym. An advantage of mine growing up was the combination of size, athletic ability, and a bit of a competitive spirit. Once my freshman year basketball season ended, I missed the game and the routine, so I wandered off to the gym one spring day around lunchtime to get in some practice. The gym was full of sweaty old (to me) guys playing full court. I almost didn't go in, but it was a big gym and the side baskets were available. I ignored the guys playing and focused on my shot.

There was a break in the action and someone yelled over at me, "Hey, do you want to play?" I hadn’t been paying much attention, so I looked over to see several of my male professors beckoning me onto the basketball court. They were lacking a fifth player because someone had to leave, so I was in. They were my height or taller, faster, and aggressive. It was a different game from what I was used to, and it was tough to keep up. It was great.

They invited me back to play the next day, and I was there almost every day until I graduated. I played all summer because a couple of them hired me to work in their department. They challenged me as a player and as a student. What I learned was that they may have had their gender biases, but so did I. Like my dad, they were learning how to adapt to a changing world.

Recently, I attended a dinner to celebrate my son's college graduation and met an older gentleman who couldn't seem to wait to have my ear. He was the uncle of another graduate, a good friend of my son, and asked what year I had graduated from what I soon learned was our shared alma mater. I told him and he started to shake his head. "You know, I was against admitting women to Bowdoin. There were no girls when I was there. I just couldn't see the benefit. I stopped donating for a while because I that unhappy about it. But I suppose it turned out fine. We needed your money and your brains." Indeed.

There Is No Secret Formula

As I revisit the idea of the glass ceiling, I think about the concept a lot differently today. Many of the challenges for women still exist. Those women who choose to raise families and work outside the home are often stretched to capacity as they give their all. I know from experience that it often feels like we are falling short on both fronts. To be fair, this isn't just a female issue. I've had male colleagues ask me what the secret is to work-life balance. Darned if I know. I have my moments when I still worry that I haven't been a good enough mother or a good enough leader. I've also had the experience of being criticized behind my back at work for missing an important work commitment in order to be somewhere for a family event. That's a rare jab, however, and I don't worry about the odd voice in the grand scheme of my body of work. Women, and men, who lead have a responsibility to remove barriers to success, not throw them in front of others.

The good news about the glass ceiling is that it is glass, and therefore transparent and breakable. Not only can we see our way to the top, but there are great leaders already there who have learned the importance of lending a hand to those on their way up the rungs.

Seven Tips to Growth

As you give some thought to your own journey, here are a few things I've learned:

  • Know your worth. Knowledge is power. Don't be afraid of it.
  • Ask for what you want. Even if the answer is no, you'll learn something.
  • Identify what you want, don't keep it a secret or apologize for it, and find the right path to get there.
  • No excuses. Figure it out. Ask for help and listen when offered advice.
  • Be a continuous learner.
  • Trust your instincts.
  • Be a leader and a role model.

Along the way, you may find that the top of the ladder is not for you. Better yet, find your own ladder. I think that's okay, and so does one of my favorite authors.

"As far as the glass ceiling, I feel that all you can do is give it your absolute best with whatever gifts the universe has given you. And if you make it in some way that other people can recognize, that's fine. But even if you don’t quote unquote make it, you're fine if you've given your whole heart and soul." -Alice Walker

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

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deb

Deb Sparrow



Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-sparrow/.

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