Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Through the glass ceiling

Q: Does success breed success? Are people more likely to succeed if they wind up with a successful organization like the New York Yankees or performing beside stars such as Derek Jeter? How often does the expectation and aura of success become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Can't a guy just shoot hoops? When the guy is the president of the United States and the hoops are at the White House, maybe it's not just a game of horse. Recent news of President Obama's boys-only basketball games in the White House gym prompted the president of the National Organization for Women to raise the specter of the bad old days when women were systematically excluded from the places of power and influence in society. Her complaint is not just some remnant of the political correctness so disparaged in the last century. Access to the "club" where powerful people hang --- even a sweaty old gym --- is often revered as the best ticket to success.

The belief that an individual can find success through association with successful people and institutions is a powerful influence on human behavior --- witness the cutthroat competition for access to "the best" schools and colleges. "The best" may not really be any better educationally than other schools, but the perception of excellence (often a synonym for elitism) fuels sometimes-unrealistic efforts of students and parents to gain admission to a narrow band of schools while other great places of learning go begging for students.

The public perception of a successful school or university often comes from the success of its graduates. Tens of thousands of students seek admission to Harvard each year because Harvard graduates are often at the center of political power, private wealth and public influence. The Shape of the River, a major study of affirmative action in higher education, demonstrated that African American students with comparatively low test scores became remarkable success stories as a result of gaining admission to Harvard and other elite universities because, in large part, they were able to associate with other highly successful people.

The perception --- and reality! --- of success-by-association drove the great movements for women's rights and civil rights in this country. Not so long ago, the corridors of power were populated almost exclusively by powerful white men --- women, African Americans, Latinos, Asians need not apply. Simple justice was not really so simple -- the drive for equal access to the places of power and privilege arose in large part from the deeply human quest for success. Discrimination diminishes opportunities for success by inhibiting the creation of the friendships and networks and information highways of truly successful people. Relationships really do count.

Even thought I've been a college president for 20 years, I sometimes find myself peering through the glass ceiling to places of power and influence that I still cannot access. I've learned that the higher women climb up that ladder, the closer we get to the glass ceiling -- and the more clearly we can see what's happening on the other side. Sweaty men playing ball, dousing each other with champagne -- oh, that's just the World Series, or pickup games of basketball, or a few rounds of golf at Burning Tree. But over there, on the sidelines, in the back court, on the back nine, I see deals going down, signals I can't read, doors opening to places I might like to go.

Perched on this ladder, looking through that glass, I've learned something else that's important to success: Stop whining. They can't hear you over there. Self-help is vital to success. My success depends on my ability to figure out how to get through that glass ceiling to be part of the action on the other side.

Bring me my hammer!

By Patricia McGuire  |  November 5, 2009; 11:25 AM ET  | Category:  successful connections Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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