These are complicated times for ambitious women. On the one
hand, there are record numbers of women at the top of industry. This year’s
woman-to-woman CEO succession at Xerox was a remarkable milestone. On the other
hand, the glass ceiling remains firmly in place: Although women hold 50.8% of
managerial positions in the labor market, they represent only 3% of Fortune 500
These are complicated times for ambitious women. On the one hand, there are record numbers of women at the top of industry. This year’s woman-to-woman CEO succession at Xerox was a remarkable milestone. On the other hand, the glass ceiling remains firmly in place: Although women hold 50.8% of managerial positions in the labor market, they represent only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
The media is crammed with pundits who claim the final word on what women want, need, or lack. There is lot of statistical number-crunching and even more speculation. Women make better managers. Women are less happy. Women would have saved Wall Street.
But for all this attention to women in the workplace, we live in an age of mommy bloggers and hope, not an age of activism. Despite the fact that women remain grossly underpaid, taking home 78% that men do, we are no longer inspired by feminist fervor. In fact, there is a pervasive reluctance to even acknowledge that sexism still exists, Harriet Rubin reported last year in a Portfolio magazine cover story.
Come to think of it, when was the last time you heard or read the word “sexism”?
Researchers have had to invent new terms, like “neo-sexism” or “modern sexism.” They point out that the 21st-century version of sexism is nothing blatant, nothing “Mad Men.” After all, sexual discrimination and sexual harassment are now illegal. Men, for the most part, have learned to appear politically correct. Most of them are savvy enough not to engage, at least consciously, in so-called “gender stereotyping.”
So why, then, are women still lagging behind? Why are women’s success stories still the exceptions that prove the rule?
Because beyond laws and regulations and attitude is the deepest, most pervasive, most unconscious and ingrained layer of our lives: culture. All of our laws and all of our diversity training won’t close the gender gap, because it’s the culture, sweetheart.
It’s the culture that insists on coding babies as blue or pink. It’s the culture that assumes men in the public sphere and women in the domestic sphere. It’s the culture that defines active qualities as “masculine” and passive qualities as “feminine.” It’s the culture of patriarchy, in which power and privilege accrue to the men.
If you doubt that male privilege endures, just replay to Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.
Or consider the story I heard from Sarah, a mid-level manager in the tech industry. After organizing transportation for a team project, a male colleague recognized her success by describing her as “a great team mom.” “Why was I ‘a great team mom,’” she wondered, “while a male colleague who had performed the same task was praised as ‘a great team manager?’
Culture is the web of signs and symbols that enmeshes us so completely that we imagine it is inevitable, or “natural.” Everything from language to images and institutions to rituals are part of this deep structure for our everyday lives.
That’s why patriarchy is so hard to pin down, let alone change. It’s subliminal, like the bass line of a song. You don’t pick out the bass line to hum, because the melody is so much catchier. But it’s actually that bass line that provides the rhythmic support for the music. You may not hum it, but you feel it in your bones.