31 January 2011

Glass Ceilings

It sounded as if she had come up against a glass ceiling, and when I asked, she thought so too. It was only a couple of tweets. Not that I know who she is, for many of us on Twitter hide under the carapace of anonymity, though she’s a something in the City, and writes a blog. Wonderfully expressive term, ‘glass ceiling, conveys’ the idea exactly.
I was going to say that I’ve never come up against a glass ceiling, but in a way I have. Not the sexist ceiling that seems to be a normal part of the world of the ‘masters of the universe’.  My ceiling came after an enforced change of employer, when I suggested that I could ease off on the surgery and do some management. I’d worked there previously, and even then the organisation had a very strange culture, and it didn’t seem to have changed over the years. Think Stalin and gulags. I’d been having a lot of work-related neck problems — it’s almost an occupational disease — and I also had an MBA. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was there to do what the management wanted, and if I didn’t like it, well, I could leave. In reality, I was over-qualified, a threat.
There was always a fair bit of banter around at work, mostly craic, but anyone who stepped over an invisible line and made an overtly sexist comment would find himself — it was usually a him — up before some Inhuman Resources manager for a bollocking. And there was always the threat of referral to the professional body. I don’t remember anyone going round boasting of who they’d slept with, though there were always stories along the lines of ‘if you want to get the best out of the theatre sister, you have to fuck her’ and ‘there’s only room for one bull here’. 
Anyhow, all this is a world away from bankers and finance.  The reports of tribunals and litigation in the papers describe blatant sexism at work, not so much tolerated as encouraged, ‘conspicuous consumption’ of alcohol, drugs and clubbing, and the expectation that girls will accept and join in. Perhaps some of this is the quality papers trawling for ‘sleaze’.
Now I haven’t done any real, empirical research here — other than a brief look at Wikipedia, which didn’t enlighten me much. The concept of a glass ceiling has been around for quite a while, an invisible barrier to career progress. And those trapped underneath it are recognised as coming from minorities; and the largest minority is women. And these minorities think that they have been unfairly overlooked for promotion, discriminated against. And again, the minority is women.
I say ‘minority’ but this isn’t really correct; after all, there are roughly as many girls as there are boys. Moreover, it’s a throwback to the days when women didn’t have equal opportunities, or indeed many opportunities. Teaching or nursing were popular options. Or copy-typing — remember that? And then marriage, and — believe it or not — marriage often meant the end of the ‘career’. Married women were expected to give up their jobs; and if they didn’t go voluntarily, they were pushed. Really. 
Those were the days when women were the property of their father, or on marriage, the property of their husbands; legally, they hardly existed. Cultural relics from the Victorians and before. The days when the boys went into the four professions — law, medicine, the armed services: holy orders were gradually replaced by mammon, banking.
Things did gradually change from the early 1900s, and more so from the 1960s. Of course, women had worked in men’s jobs before that, but almost as a curiosity, or where there were no men to do the work, as during the wars. But in the 1960s the ‘pill’ dislocated the connection between sex and reproduction, and marriage and reproduction, and gave women control. And freedom.
And, in parallel and perhaps as a consequence, there was a new, questioning ethos; just why can’t I do that? To which there was no answer. Why not, indeed? So they did, and became self-aware, assertive.
With women entering a male-dominated workplace, equally qualified as men, might you have expected that they would have had equal opportunities? Perhaps, but it took legislation, not just for women, but also for religion and anything that marked people as ‘different’ to establish these equal opportunities. Alas, legislation doesn’t make change happen, but did expose the differences between the ’espoused’ and ‘expressed’ cultures of organisations.
Different from what? Different from the standard, accepted, received paradigm of the day, one that was (entirely) male-centred. The culture of ‘male supremacy’ was too widespread, too ingrained, too accepted as the natural way of things. The playing fields weren’t level to begin with. Sexism and the glass ceiling through which women can’t break existed together, symbiotically.
Perhaps they are an extreme case, but why do bankers and financiers behave like this? Well, women are often academically and emotionally better at many things than men, excepting perhaps theoretical physics,logic and map reading. But you don’t need these skills as a banker or financier. What you do need is the continuing ability to influence others, to get them to buy whatever bonds (junk or otherwise), securities, collateralised debt obligations, or any of the acronymically disguised wares that you don’t really understand that you have on offer. And to get them to be the buyer you need bluff, flattery, disguised perhaps, some ability at golf, a strong liver, and sex. After all, ‘sex sells’. Not that you bribe them with whores or lap dancers, though you might, rather it is the thought, the journey rather than the destination which is important. There’s almost certainly an element of the herd instinct, of the lowest common denominator and ‘group think’, where it’s important to be seen as ‘one of the boys’. A strange culture, but that’s what I read.
As a line manager to keep your team of youngish men up to speed, you need to keep their testosterone up. One of the better ways is to have a ‘bit of skirt’ around the office. But this girl can’t be seen to be better than any man, for such men have an inbuilt, congenital level of insecurity, and need their egos polished frequently. So the ‘skirt’ is there to keep the chaps going, almost as an agent provocateur, but she can’t be seen to be too successful. She will be expected to be ‘one of the boys’ in the bars and night clubs, but must not — dare not — be a real competitor. And if she actually does some useful work, well, that’s a bonus.
Sexism is a form of bullying, defined by how the recipient feels, not by what the bully felt. If you think you’ve been bullied, then you have been. And yes, in my example I was sure I’d been bullied.
There are some successful female financiers, bankers, investment managers though; they are generally described as ‘superwoman’, juggling career, children, whatever. But calling them ‘superwoman’ only confirms that they are the exception, the ones who got away. The unsuperwomen — dare I say this? — are still on the trading floor, or at their desks, doing their job, stimulating the boys and wondering, perhaps, whether it’s really worth the money, whether they should escape.

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