This is a very intense week ― we’re all feeling a lot, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. And amidst the whirlwind of highly charged events, the coming inauguration brings a very specific and pointed disappointment for professional women. Regardless of our personal political views, many of us were excited at the prospect of a woman president, and many of us felt deeply discouraged with the unexpected election results in November. We will all certainly debate the particulars of the last election, and I’m sure those debates will continue for years. But regardless of what exactly went on during the 2016 campaign, the election results unquestionably reflect the persistence of a very real dynamic: a deeply held discomfort on the part of a significant part of our society with women who hold power.
The glass ceiling is not going anywhere for now. I want to suggest ― not that this is a good thing, it’s obviously not ― but it is good for it to be out in the open.
The truth is, many of us have been living in a dream world ― and it hasn’t always been a good dream. We’ve been led to believe that the deeply entrenched barriers to women’s success are fading away, that there’s nothing between us and our highest aspirations but a little grit and our own imaginations. While barriers are certainly diminishing, the myriad women who’ve slammed into that impact resistant glass know that society’s wishful thinking about its own progress has outpaced reality.
This is an uncomfortable, very awkward truth. It reveals something about our professions, our colleagues, our friends, our family members ― even ourselves ― that we’d rather not acknowledge. But for women in the trenches, doing the day-to-day work of building their professional lives, this awkward truth can be liberating. Because many, many of us have been living with the terrible burden of feeling that if we don’t succeed in conventional career tracks at the highest levels, we aren’t doing something right.
A pernicious consequence of the collective failure to acknowledge the reality of the glass ceiling has been our taking seriously the endless barrage of well intentioned but crazy-making advice thrown at women pursuing a career. You’ve heard it all, that litany of contradictory, impossible-to-fulfill requisites for success: Smile, don’t smile. Ask for that raise ― oh, but we’ll judge you if you do. Don’t dress mannishly, don’t dress provocatively. Be authoritative, don’t be bossy. Lean in, be likable. Honestly, who could succeed if they were trying to follow all the bad advice professional women get? The self-consciousness alone would be paralyzing.
Wouldn’t it come as a blessed relief to think that maybe it doesn’t matter what outfit you wear to that meeting? Or that you really don’t need to worry all that much about your tone of voice?
With a more realistic view of what we’ve been up against, we can get out of our own way, let our triumphs thrill us that much more, and not worry so much about our setbacks. Turns out, that promotion was an even bigger deal than you thought. Celebrate! And when things don’t work out the way were were hoping, we can try to learn as much as possible from those professional disappointments, but not take them to heart or view them as an indictment of our aspirations.
Rather than asking ourselves again and again what we did wrong, we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and try again. After all, things aren’t so bleak that we can’t hope for better next time ― and we can do so with more pragmatism. For example, women’s leadership expert Tara Mohr has written insightfully about women who do substantive work receiving disproportionate, and more personalized, criticism than men. As she points out, if we are to be effective in pursuing significant goals, it’s important to accept the reality that criticism comes to accomplished women, and it isn’t always fair. Of course it shouldn’t be that way, but until things change, instead of turning ourselves inside out trying to avoid criticism, we need to find the means to persevere in spite of it. We can also turn a sober eye on the organizations where we work and assess whether they truly offer the opportunities they tout. Finding a situation where our talents are valued and we have a genuine chance to achieve can be a great alternative to internalizing inappropriate feedback. We can’t eliminate the glass ceiling entirely on our own ― that’s society’s job ― but we can make sure the actions we do take are grounded in the reality of our situation and have a chance for effectiveness.
Acknowledging the obvious ― that, despite progress, the glass ceiling is intact - should come as a breath of fresh air. Now we can relax and get back to work.