Glass Ceilings and Escalators: Gender in the Workplace

When it comes to women in traditionally male jobs or men in traditionally female jobs there’s all kinds of talk about how we have made so much progress and we are still improving. In many ways, this is true. The workplace paradigm is in the visible process of shifting from “men taking care of the world and women taking care of the men,” to women and men taking care of each other and the world.

Sometimes women are able to thrive in traditionally male careers, such as mechanic, police officer, or soldier.

Between 1983 and 2002, women police detectives and supervisors, women millwrights, women civil engineers, women automobile mechanics, women airplane pilots and navigators, and women firefighters all saw increases in the one hundred and three hundred percent ranges. Seems promising, right?

Technically, yes. Progress has been made in that women now feel they have the option of going into these fields where before it was unheard of. But just because there has been an increase of women in these jobs doesn’t necessarily mean there are a lot of women, or that working conditions for these women are ideal. Even as the number of women in traditionally male jobs and the number of men in traditional female jobs increases, the way we view them as men and women remains the same, therefore, conflicts are bound to persist.

When men take traditionally female jobs, such as dental hygienist, economists call it “pink collar.”

If you think about the origins of gender discrimination in the workplace, and the advent of women taking “traditional” jobs outside the home, you will begin to see a pattern. Gender discrimination is not born simply of a belief that women are less intelligent or capable than men, but that they are inherently better at different things than men are.

The stereotype that women are inherently communicative, nurturing, and compassionate and thus better able to carry out  jobs of service and teaching, is directly related to the careers that are predominantly female: grade school teachers, nurses, waitresses, maids, hairdressers, secretaries, dental hygienists, and retail clerks. The stereotype that men are inherently strong leaders, more aggressive, protective, organizational, analytical, mathematically minded, spatial, and rational, is directly related to the careers we see men dominating: engineering, accounting, law enforcement, emergency services, sports media, politics, medicine, and construction, to name a few.

Even a Google search of “grade school teacher” brings up mostly pictures of women.

The expectation that sex alone is an indicator of certain traits and abilities is still prevalent, however much we believe in a post-sexist society, because even as we are evolving these misguided beliefs about gender roles and allowing careers for men and women to overlap, deep-seated understandings of femininity and masculinity continue to penetrate our attitudes and actions. The perfect example of this is the “glass ceiling” for women and the “glass escalator” for men.

The “glass ceiling,” as you’ve probably heard about, is a phenomenon where women in traditionally male jobs often reach a point where they can no longer get promotions or pay raises, regardless of competency or experience. The “glass escalator,” as you may not have heard about, is a contrasting phenomenon where men in traditionally female jobs often move quickly through the ranks to become supervisors and managers ahead of their female co-workers, regardless of competency or experience.

These phenomenons are the direct result of trust for men and lack of trust for women due to the traits we fundamentally associate with femininity and masculinity: feminine means physically delicate, emotionally unstable, gentle, and passive; masculine means aggressive, assertive, insensitive, decisive, and emotionless. Men and women are automatically sidled with these respective stereotypes by default until proven otherwise, and women who succeed in male dominated careers have usually done so by successfully shedding their most feminine characteristics on the job.

Even though men and women can make choices about their presentation and take actions that challenge the assumptions and overcome them, stereotypes can often become inadvertently reinforced by one tiny slip-up. That is why women in traditionally male jobs are judged more harshly when they make a mistake, and men in traditionally female jobs are forgiven more easily—because we assume that the woman succumbed to her natural inclinations while the man just had a momentary lapse from the norm.

Lois Frankel, PhD., writes in her book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office:

Women bring a unique set of behaviors to the workplace that are needed, especially in today’s climate. Our tendencies to collaborate rather than compete, listen more than talk, and use relationships rather than muscle to influence are the very same behaviors I coach men to acquire. But it’s all about balance. Just as men can overuse their stereotypical characteristics, so can women.

Though I hesitate to blame women for their own misfortune in the workplace, it is true that the stereotypes are ingrained in women and men about themselves just as much as they are about the opposite sex. These beliefs about ourselves and what the world expects from us that are fostered from such a young age often have as much influence on what we do as on how other people view us, which only exacerbates the problem.

Inevitably with our changing society, growing numbers will bridge the gender gap in many careers, but I firmly believe that equal treatment within those careers will only come with the dissolution of stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, both within ourselves and about others. What do you think? Have you or someone you know ever experienced the “glass ceiling” or the “glass escalator?”


3 responses to “Glass Ceilings and Escalators: Gender in the Workplace

  1. You said something interesting when you referred to the ways in which women are better at some things than men are. It reminded me of a paradigm proposed by Jean Auel in her book “Clan of the Cave Bears” in which she suggests that the reason men, physically stronger, dominate women is because the men know that women have superior powers and connection to the divine because they give birth, are more intuitive, etc etc. The men keep the women in a submissive place lest they realize just how powerful they are and the world become a matriarchy. I agree with a lot of what you said but I do believe that not all of the adjectives you use to describe women and men are stereotypes without merit. Stereotypes originate from experiences and often from a truth that has become distorted. Because of the differences between the male and female brain and physiology some of the stereotypes have their basis in chemistry, neurology and DNA. The distortion is that ALL women are a certain way and ONLY that way. Vice versa with men. We have come to realize over the generations that men may have certain personality traits that are more dominant in them than in women but that men, also, have characteristics that are typified as more feminine. In fact, I think the word “stereotype” has been perhaps misused in some places in your essay. “Typified” may be a more accurate word.
    The fact that a woman may be more likely to have certain “feminine” characteristics doesn’t mean that she is without certain “masculine” characteristics. Assuming otherwise is where certain gender characteristics become a more rigid definition of that gender and from there it is a quick jump to making gross generalities and multiple assumptions that are a mockery of the actual bio-social reality.
    I think that to decree that all stereotypes are misnomers, are grossly limiting, have minimal basis in reality or biology, and are inherently un-useful is in itself a “stereotype” of sorts. While much of what you claim vis-a-vis the glass ceiling and glass escalator (a new darling metaphor) is, in my opinion, true. However, some of the foundation upon which you have built your thesis may have cracks you might enjoy exploring.
    I do think it’s a novel idea to suggest that people have stereotypes of themselves that may limit them; it’s a new lens. I think these “stereotypes” may be hardwired in childhood. But, like much about parenting and our views of what it means to be a man or a woman in society, the way we nurture children has evolved to a better place (my opinion) which can only mean that what is being hardwired will be different than in generations past. This, in and of itself, may mean that the way we nurture our children can effect the “nature”of the sexes over generations. And, perhaps, alter “stereotypes” as they are defined today.
    I agree that stereotypes, such as they are, are counter-productive when it comes to bettering society as a whole. However, many of them are so ingrained, much as our racism is ingrained, that it will take many people who openly and brazenly challenge the stereotype by claiming to be something that is diametrically opposed to it–and who make that work for them as well as the good of the whole.

    • It is true that stereotypes are often founded in fact and biology, and have some merit. What makes nature into a stereotype is the gross exaggeration and exclusion of all else in making assumptions about people rather than getting to know them. When abused in this way, they are harmful and limiting. I don’t think society has reached a place where we can safely acknowledge the legitimacy of some “typified” gender traits without offering excuses to the masses who persist in misusing them. Brain chemistry is all fine and good, and I realize it has merit in determining likeliness for aptitude in certain areas, but early learning and individual interest and intelligence can often overpower these genetic leanings. My intention in using these words to describe men and women and masculinity and femininity was not to suggest that they are true, but to point out that they are overwhelmingly perceived. I am glad that the psychology of child rearing has begun to shift from the stone age of blindly prescribing and encouraging specific gender roles, and I concede that things have improved in this manner, but I fear that too many gender misnomers make it through the sieve from media sources and such, and an unhealthy world for gender that is oblivious to its faults has transformed into an unhealthy world for gender that believes it has become enlightened.

  2. Pingback: Trouble Understanding Men? How to Successfully Crack the Code of the Male Mind | A Dating Dogs Blog·

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