Glass Ceiling: An invisible barrier for the working women

Chowdhury Saima Ferdous: Glass ceiling is that invisible bar that prevents women from reaching the top of their career; while “Glass Cliff” is an obstacle women face after reaching the top. These invisible barriers are mostly associated with the stereotypes, social norms, values & rituals. In patriarchal societies like Bangladesh, this ceiling gets thicker due to the preconceived notions about gender roles. That means, in our country, the social roles are defined according to gender. Men are expected to be the bread earners and women as care givers. To my utter surprise, glass ceiling was also found to be associated with the overly hyped belief of motherhood and womenhood. That means the success of being a “perfect woman” fundamentally depends on the success of her motherhood and her ability to perform the social roles of “the woman”. Other qualities come later or go unnoticed as these are considered as an addition and not so expected from a woman.
Perhaps that is the reason I have a bit of “allergy” whenever anyone and anybody randomly comments on women empowerment. I have often found people considering this empowerment as some kind of privilege or charity offered to women; whereas it is women’s right to be empowered as a human being. I have seen people misreading the concept of “building awareness” about women empowerment. Their vibe indicated an element of pity for women in the name of empowerment. These misconceptions re-establise the old stereotypes about women’s ability as decision maker & as leaders. Whereas, if you look clearly even in a purely patriarchal society like Bangladesh, women have always been powerful in whatever they did, have always shown great visionary abilities during adversities be it at home, politics or any other context. The problem is not with women of course; the question of empowering women comes because of the ideas orthodox male dominated society loves to nourish, and with the stereotypical mentality which creates an inertia about giving enough credit to women’s ability.
File photo of women working in an office in Dhaka. Mehedi HasanMy pen often gets stuck finding some awful thoughts of my research respondents when they start talking about women’s ability, my jaw often drops reading the perceptions of men about women as professionals. To me, their so called educational certificates, names & fame start becoming a blur with their rigidity. Sometimes I find no difference between them and an uneducated & underprivileged person who could be spared for having stereotypical ideas about women as leaders. For example, some corporate tycoons expressed their thoughts about women’s candidature for board membership or other leadership position and said, “Running a family and business are not the same”, as if running a family needs no quality. I feel sad for them imagining them in running the regular home chores which requires, multi tasking, handling different types of personalities in a family with great leadership, being so time bound to ensure everyone in the family gets everything ready before they leave home and relax after their return, doing financial calculation with budget and negotiating with different groups, maintaining liaison with the different kind of people in a family or society to ensure a healthy growth of a nation… And yet you doubt about her qualities!!!
It’s not that these men do not love women in their family or do not respect them. They do. But their perception changes in a flick whenever they have to think about women’s potential outside home, they doubt or outright reject the idea of having a women as professional leaders, financial analysts or a decision maker. In some cases, as I found some men with the power to select employees for leadership positions, confidently stating that men are “always” better than women as a decision maker, vision articulator, strategy formulator.” And perhaps that is the reason women on many occasions even after putting up their best at work and proving perfect as leaders, are being pushed off from the leadership position.
However, by saying that, I do not mean that all the women working in different professions are more deserving candidates than their male counter parts. All I want to say is that deserving women candidates need to prove themselves more than their male counter parts and that is the reality all over the world.
Why do we carry these stereotypes? The answer is there already, and we all are guilty for that. You don’t believe that? Ok let me ask you a question. Let’s imagine, for a serious surgery if you have to choose between two available renowned doctors. One is male and the other one is female. Whom will you prefer? If I ask you to close your eyes and think about a nurse, which gender came in your imagination? For a long flight if you get to know your pilot is a woman will you get a bit nervous?
I told you! We all are guilty of such compartmentalized thoughts. Now the companies or our professional world is not comprised of robots, they are led and guided by us… So very naturally the decisions we make or the culture we set in organisations get influenced by our stereotypes.
Some profession like teaching, nursing, human resource, doctor are so well-worn for women, it wouldn’t be too naive at least to expect that this ceiling is absent in these professions at least. However research findings from all over the world including Bangladesh don’t say so. These conventional professions have their own set of components to create a glass ceiling. For instance, once while reflecting on the challenges, one of my respondents said, she was exposed to the glass ceiling when she decided to move abroad for her doctoral degree. Although, as she explained, for male colleagues roads are all free to reach the sky, but for her it wasn’t the same. Whilst for a male academic, it is his choice if he wants his wife to accompany him or not, but for her the decision to pursue the degree depends on many factors. In her case she was lucky, as her children were school going and husband wanted to support her, but her family, colleagues and the society could not take it easily – it was not so ok for them to accept that the “bread earner” is leaving the job. As she said, “even though we had no issue in compromising our careers in turn for each other and for our children, the organization where I work still taunts me saying I am “dominating” and my aspiration for Doctoral degree was never appreciated even in my organization simply because my husband left his job”. Perhaps that is where the ceiling exists because you work hard to achieve something and your aspiration is not treated with respect or as your right. In the world we live in, many things have changed, but one reality is still constant, in dual career couple, it is always the women who is expected to compromise her career first whenever there is a question of raising family or supporting husband’s career in case of his transfer to different region or country. These compromises of women have become so ingrained in our culture that no one even bothers to consider it as compromise and be grateful for that. It is expected to happen and it is almost a “forbidden hope” to expect the same from a husband.
Another important aspect emerged from the experiences of women with conventional professions. Since the society “accepts”/” prefers women to enter these professions (teaching, HR, doctor etc), any achievement of women in these professions often are underestimated. People including women from other unconventional profession demean these achievements by believing success is easier to achieve as they have no glass ceiling. When women reached the top in these professions, their success was rarely considered as a result of their determination, hard work and commitment….they were believed to have walked in a smooth path to success. Since society has accepted women in those profession, a lion’s portion of the credit for their success goes unnoticed. In answering to such preconceived ideas, a doctor who left practicing even after having her first part of FRCPS done, said, “Only if our society knew that the glass is always thick in every profession for any woman who wants to crack it”.
I tried to figure out why do women need to worry so much what society says? Why do they need to get the approval of others when the social pressure that ruins their aspiration for identity. Most of my female respondents replied, it is not that they want their approval, rather it is the constant taunts, unnecessary questions relating parenting, family life and constant bullying for being so “imperfect” as a woman that after certain point they start doubting their intention for building an identity, the nonrecognition at work place starts creating doubts in their mind about their ability, the pressure for dual responsibility at certain point makes it pointless to struggle so much for a position which are “meant for men”. On top of all women are chased by guilt feelings relating to their motherhood. The perceived social definition of “perfect motherhood” starts with the criterion of a home staying mom. We have inertia in learning that there is no rule of thumb for perfect parenting. It is the quality of time, not that quantity that matters for raising a child.
What I have realized so far through researches on the glass ceiling is that, it will take time even to accept the fact that they do exist. Women who have cracked the ceiling were determined, committed and had passion for fulfilling their dreams. The journey was never easy and different for all. They still have bumps, have many patch marks, but their determination was much stronger than that. Wearing flat sandal is always easy but stilettos are classy and needs training to be able to carry that style. Even when one learns the mechanism wearing high heels for long time it still hurts, and women who do, developed their own mechanisms to cope with that.
And for the society to change, women need to accept that it won’t change overnight. The stereotypes will start changing when we change, the society is not an envelope that encapsulates us, it is us! When we change, there will be ripple effect on the larger part. Bring the change at home, be determined, passionate and avoid being judgemental or seeking approval, learn to pat your back and move on. Do not do anything to please others, be kind, decent, civilized and fair to yourself and others. Believe that you are your own set of example and chase your dream with your own set of goals. Hard work is hard, it hurts but that is what cracks the ceiling…and if others could do it, you can do it too….glass ceiling is nothing but an invisible bar!!

Chowdhury Saima Ferdous teaches International Business at the University of Dhaka.

Ref: Bangla Tribune