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Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani is author of the new book, The Next Generation of Women Leaders: What You Need to Lead but Won't Learn in Business School and co-president of Women's Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter at @NextGenWomen.

A glass ceiling, by any other name...

Over the last 25 years we've heard different names for women's work predicaments : a maternal wall, a sticky floor, the mommy track, a labyrinth and, of course, the glass ceiling. Such monikers attempt to boil down in a neat, bite-size nugget some extraordinarily nuanced social dynamics. Has such language served to help women by uncovering veiled unfairness, or do these labels actually hinder progress?

That very question was raised recently at a women's leadership conference I attended. "Focus on the bright spots," one group argued, while another urged that we need to be candidly vocal about gender inequality in today's workplaces. I find myself seeing a need for more of both.

To be sure, today's workplace bias is not exactly the same as it used to be. You can still find an organization or industry that looks and operates like characters on "Mad Men," but for the most part, what hamstrings women at work today is far less overt. Micro-inequities, those seemingly insignificant events that exclude women or lessen confidence in them, are far more rampant. MIT's Mary P. Rowe has studied micro-inequities, calling them "fiendishly efficient in perpetuating unequal opportunity, because they are in the air we breathe.... Micro-inequities are woven into all the threads of our work life and of US education. They are 'micro', not at all in the sense of trivial, but in the sense of miniature." Rowe also points out that the "scaffolding" that supports today's workplace is built of these seemingly small events, many of which are hard-to prove and covert--and even, often, unintentional.

What does a typical micro-inequity look like? Imagine pitching your services to a man and woman working at the same company, and giving your eye contact--and attention--to the man. This happens, in part, because people assume that the man is more senior or more of a decision maker. Envision a department that's throwing a celebratory lunch to mark winning a new account. No one casts a suspicious eye when the young woman on the team is asked to order and fetch the food. And for anyone that's worked on the dreaded team project in graduate school, they will likely remember that it was a woman in the group that somehow became the note-taker or team secretary.

Without a doubt, some people still do and say outright sexist things. On my first day at one job, I remember asking a high-ranking male which way conference room 10 was, and was promptly told: "It's over there. I'm not surprised you don't know though-- women are spatially challenged." And more recently, I had lunch with the head of a well-respected publication who cracked the joke, "You want to know how women can make it to the C-suite? Marry the chairman."

It seems whatever our worldview of gender inequity is―including the perception that it doesn't exist―we find confirmatory data to substantiate our view. Think the world is teaming with sexism at work? Then most likely you'll look for it and find it wherever you go. Believe that all of this glass ceiling nonsense is a bunch of post-feminist jabber? You too will look for reasons to support your view. You will see singular examples of women who've attained power like Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi and assume progress for women is complete.

How do we proceed then? Interestingly, of the 30 successful women executives I interviewed for my book, all of them expressed that hurdles indeed exist for women, and yet they don't get mired in them. In an interview with Rosslyn Kleeman, chair of the Coalition for Effective Change, for example, she noted, "There is a mistaken idea that barriers no longer exist, but there are still a lot. . . .Women need to find a happy medium between acknowledging the barriers that exist and forging ahead anyway."

Most any set of statistics will show that women still have strides to make in terms of gaining leadership status and fair pay, or finding workplaces that truly accommodate their caretaking realities rather than just tolerating them. Micro-inequities can be so hard to demonstrate that if we don't point out these irksome, distracting splinters under our skin, we sit ignorantly by, mistakenly waiting for relief. The reality for working women may not always be encouraging, but when we hush the dialogue, we go backward.

By Selena Rezvani

 |  January 11, 2011; 8:03 PM ET
Category:  Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The problem with drilling down to the level of "micro-inequities" is that there are thousands of them that have nothing to do with gender. The guy with the strange accent or the speech impediment or the receding hairline may all suffer from them too. Are they any less unfair? And there are LOTS of gender-related ones that are advantageous to women and hurt men too. So it's hard to connect those to the broader issue of discrimination against women.

Posted by: Dadrick | January 18, 2011 1:52 PM
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Will the modern day feminists fight for my equality in the modern day work place? As I commented before, I am a tall white male in my early 40's and I can sense all kinds of inequities and ceilings...office politics.

In life you win some you lose some. Life is unfair...I suppose some say more unfair for this demographic group over that demographic group.

I have worked under good female supervisors and bad female supervisors...to me, it is about the leadership qualities and content of character. I do not care whether man, woman, minority or other.

I have also heard many women say they would rather not work and would rather do something else...whether staying home and taking care of children or doing something else.

Posted by: oceancrest67 | January 18, 2011 12:57 PM
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How many women around this area are un or underemployed due to their own choices? I can name hundreds of well educated women who stay home instead of working. Working sucks. It is mostly degrading, boring, and it is so awful that the only way you would go is if they pay you.... This glass ceiling crap is what feminist organizations whine about. Most women and men are never going to see the next floor of upward mobility-- it is a concrete ceiling for them.

Posted by: RedStater3 | January 18, 2011 1:55 AM
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Quit whining Selena, you could be a female in the middle east. Life here for the weaker sex isn't too bad...

Posted by: mark0004 | January 17, 2011 2:04 PM
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My Dad is 77 he worked as an Engineer for the Navy. Our family witnessed and experienced this glass ceiling first hand. My Dad was passed over for a promotion to run a new office out of state. The man hired (white) was unable to do the job. So much that my Dad had to spend two weeks a month at the new location doing this man's job. When my Dad retired they still had to hire him as a consultant. My dad basically retired due to his frustration with not getting paid for his talent while the white guy reaped the higher salary.

Posted by: lois3 | January 17, 2011 11:41 AM
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"Micro-inequities can be so hard to demonstrate that if we don't point out these irksome, distracting splinters under our skin, we sit ignorantly by, mistakenly waiting for relief."

Just who is going to point them out, and who at the top will listen and persuade or force people to change? This is not realistic.

The head of the company or public sector agency must be attuned to recognizing comments that are sexist and "call out" the individuals making the comments. Companies and agencies must monitor hires and promotions to the senior levels and ask questions when promotions do not mirror the distribution at the next lower level.

This kind of change can only come from the top, not from women reporting each derogatory comment or incident. Rezvani is being unrealistic.

Posted by: Whazzis | January 17, 2011 10:27 AM
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The glass ceiling for Caucasian women is higher, meaning it's much better, than that of any other non-Caucasian men demographic group in America. That is an undeniable, yet very seldom mentioned, fact in America.

Posted by: TalkingHead1 | January 17, 2011 9:56 AM
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the ladies "who brung it" are not whining. they are just getting on with the reality of progress towards equality.

only the air-heads drone on about it.

Posted by: beastlet | January 15, 2011 2:15 PM
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NO $ALE

Posted by: theFieldMarshall | January 15, 2011 8:15 AM
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And I didn't mean that women who stay at home with the kids aren't working. It's work but they don't get a paycheck for it.

Posted by: dcsmartie | January 15, 2011 6:43 AM
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How many women would really prefer to stay home with the kids and not work? Women are now expected to work since households are dependent on two incomes. You can tell they would rather be home. I am also tired of women who think they are doing society a favor by having kids and expect the work world to revolve around their schedules.

Posted by: dcsmartie | January 14, 2011 11:24 PM
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Perspective and how you measure means a lot.

In many companies, men are statistically overrepresented at both the top and the lower levels. Women are often statistically overrepresented in the middle.

Is that because of micro-inequities, overt discrimination or other factors? It's not clear to me.

The glass ceiling analogy, however, seems outdated, because it implies women looking up at men, when in many cases the men are looking up at the women in the middle and the women are looking down at the lower men while looking up at top men.

If the separation of the top men and middle women is called a glass ceiling, what do you call the barrier between the lower men and the middle women?

Posted by: jfv123 | January 14, 2011 2:36 PM
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There are some pretty solid studies out there that demonstrate that perceived inequities in the workplace are caused more by the decisions made by individual women than by some unconscious social conspiracy. I am willing to accept that there are differences of opinion on this issue, but when the professionals (like the author) start basing their arguments on unsubstantiated minutia, it is time to put the issue to bed. The author of this article is trying to sell books. Reading her bio, it looks like her whole professional life is wrapped up in the sale of this argument. She is by no means an impartial observer and her comments should be weighed in that context.

Posted by: kuato | January 14, 2011 11:14 AM
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There are some pretty solid studies out there that demonstrate that perceived inequities in the workplace are caused more by the decisions made by individual women than by some unconscious social conspiracy. I am willing to accept that there are differences of opinion on this issue, but when the professionals (like the author) start basing their arguments on unsubstantiated minutia, it is time to put the issue to bed. The author of this article is trying to sell books. Reading her bio, it looks like her whole professional life is wrapped up in the sale of this argument. She is by no means an impartial observer and her comments should be weighed in that context.

Posted by: kuato | January 14, 2011 11:13 AM
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... or finding workplaces that truly accommodate their caretaking realities rather than just tolerating them ...

While this woman is taking time off from work to deal with her caretaking realities, or indeed creating her caretaking realities, the rest of us not so involved are still working. We work the 8-12 hour days, the 50 week years, we put in the time on the job that she simply does not. We take the career advancement training, we attend new learning seminars and so on, things she cannot attend to because of these caretaking realities.

Other things begin equal, such as talent and skill, why should she expect to be on the same track for progress as the rest of us?

Really, those of us who stayed at work don't owe her anything. She deserves no special consideration any of the rest of us can't expect.

And yet ... time and time and again, I hear women whining about how unfair it is.

If you want the workaholics the pay any attention to you, work more, quit whining, and stop demanding equal pay for equal work - you have NOT done equal work.

Posted by: eezmamata | January 12, 2011 10:34 AM
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Don't feed the troll.

Posted by: moebius22 | January 12, 2011 9:46 AM
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Women need to stay home, cook, clean, raise kids and shut up. Think of how much more pleasant the workplace would be and how much traffic would be reduced if they just stayed home.

Posted by: adrienne_najjar | January 12, 2011 9:40 AM
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I find the glass ceiling phenomenon to be a matter of fact in the business world. In graduate school I wrote an essay as shown below following real situations in the work force. I also noticed that certain organizations block minorities from getting better positions, and if the minority is opinionated then the constructive discharge takes place. One may think that organizations are better trained, but it does not seem to be the case, and employees have to suffer this type of abuse.

You can read several pages for free or download it. http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/eliminating-the-glass-ceiling/2804878

Posted by: mtroillard | January 12, 2011 9:36 AM
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It is interesting that the writer assigns blame to the micro-inequities for the disparity of female representation in upper management. Micro-inequities face everyone in the workplace. It is how you react to the inequities that define success in the workplace. Perhaps part of the blame for the disparity rests with the individuals themselves. This is not a grand conspiracy.

Posted by: torope | January 12, 2011 9:08 AM
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"Think the world is teaming with sexism at work?"

I think the word you want is "teeming."

Posted by: cpfint | January 12, 2011 9:07 AM
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It is interesting that the writer only blames the micro-inequities as the culprit for disparity in female representation in upper management. Inequities exist for everyone, male or female. How the individual reacts to it seems to define success at the workplace. Does the writer ever consider that the individuals themselves share in responsibility for not achieving higher success in the workplace. This is not a grand conspiracy.

Posted by: torope | January 12, 2011 8:49 AM
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There are all kinds of 'inequities' in any workplace for almost any employee...gender, age, race, religion, weight, appearance, nationality, etc. etc. etc. Life is unfair.

I am a 6'4" white male and I can smell the 'inequities' coming my way when I get passed over for a job, or a promotion, or some politically correct excuse to make room for this type of employee or that type of employee. Try working with an over-weight female supervisor with her own little inequities, retaliatory agendas, cliquish behaviors and her list of favorite cronies.

The working world moves and shapes with all of it for men and for women.

I respect good leadership whether from men or women. Civility, sincerity, honest to goodness qualities are a rare find these days.

Posted by: oceancrest67 | January 12, 2011 8:35 AM
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Perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that the reader reaction to this thoughtful column at least thus far has been uniformly negative as well as sarcastic. The wild exaggerations of the first post "....t seems odd women control most of the money, as they spend most of the money...." followed by equally strange comments from nearly all the others were sentiments rife in the 1970s, and prove the author's point about the pervasiveness of microinequity. Plus ca change, if you will. A local example of how microinequities diminish us all:
One of the purported advantages of federal employment is the step-grade pay system. On the surface, a GS-5 is a GS-5, and will earn a step increase at a certain point, and then a grade, and so on, thus persuading a lot of us women that pay discrimination is unlikely while working for the feds. Or is it? When promotion is limited, to a supervisor's friends' children, or recruiting is done only at higher grades or done outside with jobs going to contractors (who have no such pay system in place), then what do we see? A lot of women who were recruited in part with promises of cross training and promotion, who find themselves stagnating at the lower levels, just as things were 30 and 40 years ago, because the equality of opportunity is not there, a micro-inequity in the federal system writ large, because it affects so many people.
If these inequities are not addressed--or even recognized--by the most dominant employer, then how can they be dealt with by the private sector?

Posted by: jody43jody | January 12, 2011 8:12 AM
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It seems odd women control most of the money, as they spend most of the money. So it seems logical they could manage the money in the world of business just as well. If all females worked all their life, instead of choosing when to, and when not to work, Congress would have more tax money to spend. One issue women hate to confront is, when they are in a position of importance, depending on their age when you look at them across the conference table you say, she is really an asset, and important. Sure hope she doesn't pick up and walk out to decide how long she wants to be away to raise a family. If males tried that they will lose their job.

Posted by: dangreen3 | January 12, 2011 7:27 AM
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Oh very nice, Rezvani. It's always fun to blame the victim.

So now identifying a problem is the same as causing the problem? Pointing out that there's a glass ceiling is the same as creating it? Disgusting.

Posted by: karlmarx2 | January 12, 2011 7:13 AM
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This is somewhat ingenious. Not exactly new research shows that women now dominate many of the high-status areas of work like the arts, publishing or the media for example. And women are obviously happy to keep the sexist ball rolling if it suits them. I've just lost a minor contract (no, I'm not a bitter male, the work was boring) because the publisher has hired several very attractive female writers to get and meet potential clients and spread the word. Totalitarianism tends to make people desperate and selfish, rather than democratic. Doesn't it.

Posted by: gb_5 | January 12, 2011 6:17 AM
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Terms like "gender inequity" and "micro-inequities" say more about the writer than about the workplace. Those who want to be victims will always find some sort of inequity, real or imagined.

Posted by: concernedcitizen3 | January 11, 2011 11:31 PM
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The writer seems to be under the impression that sexist remarks on the workplace only go one way. I can't count how many times I have to listen to female coworkers spout off some chauvinist, female power, about female superiority to men. The differecne is when women complain about such remarks they are taken seriously.

Posted by: moebius22 | January 11, 2011 10:22 PM
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In the absence of available work, your questions about labels hardly matter.

Have you been out there lately, in the workforce, outside of the DC/taxpayer padded/corporate influence soaked/bubble?

It's miserable.

30-40 million workers are without work.

Many have given up looking.

And Washington is clueless.

Posted by: wherehaveallthejobsgone | January 11, 2011 10:08 PM
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I other words women are surpassing men at such suprising speed that the run of the mill Feminsts refrains are starting to lose meaning when measured against reality. Therefore, we must downplay female gains by harping on trivialities to regain plausibility.

In 20 years when women make account for the majority of degrees across the board (they are almost there)and make up the majority of management, and make more than men, they will still be complaining about some discrepancy.

Posted by: moebius22 | January 11, 2011 9:45 PM
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