No, The Glass Ceiling Is Not Women's Fault

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Another day, another story pretending to help women as it slyly drags them down. Is there anything more insidious than a disingenuous "empowerment" piece?

A story from Business Insider that's making the rounds offers female corporate ladder-climbers advice in a piece titled, "Ways women unknowingly sabotage their success."

If that headline sounds familiar, it's because it is. Business publications are constantly churning out pieces providing tips for women to break that ever-durable glass ceiling. And in almost every case, the narrative is the same: Women could make it in business . . . if only they'd stop fucking up so much.

In this case, the story is downright egregious in its woman-blaming; the writer even notes that the advice could come off as "just another case of blaming the victim"—before she promptly continues to blame the victim. In addition to calling women "self-sabotagers," the story suggests that the reason men dominate in business is because women say "just" too much, ask for permission a lot, and focus on cooperation rather than competition.

If only women were more confident, more assertive, more like men . . . then everything would be different!

When you start to look for it, this kind of "wisdom"—and the woman-rebuking language surrounding it—is everywhere.

"I keep finding myself in conversations about how a surprising number of high achieving women aren’t moving confidently into leadership within their careers," writes Forbes.

"I have watched many talented people struggle to advance beyond middle management and through the glass ceiling. Women have particular trouble making the leap," notes The Wall Street Journal.

"What's A Girl Gotta Do To Break The Glass Ceiling?" asks Forbes, helpfully reducing women to their adolescent state.

This is not, it should be pointed out, the only option available for framing the conversation about the gender gap in business leadership. Consider how the Feminist Majority Foundation titled its piece on empowering women: "The glass ceiling: How women are blocked from getting to the top."

Here, we get the rare sense that systemic forces, not women, are at fault for an enduring lack of equality at the top. And in thinking about the broader social and cultural forces at play, the whole paradigm suddenly shifts. Maybe it's not that women say "just" too much, but that the system is more critical of the language they use than the language men use. Maybe women would use more assertive language if the system didn't penalize them for it. Maybe it's not that women aren't competitive, but that their efforts at collaboration are too frequently dismissed as proof that they lack drive.

The whole thing amounts to one hell of a vicious cycle: faux-empowering articles remind society that women don't understand how to succeed in business, this is internalized to the extent that women are held back in business, and then because women are being held back, more faux-empowering articles come out to remind everyone that women don't understand how to succeed in business.

This isn't to say that advising women to be more confident is a bad thing; it's true that women have a harder time asserting themselves, and that this can be a hindrance to their success. But this too is ultimately the system's fault, not theirs.

This also isn't meant to dismiss genuine efforts to equip women with tools for success. I fully support organizations like one we recently spotlighted, Glassbreakers, that offer valuable resources for professional success.

But just once, I'd love to see a different kind of story land in my digital pile of "pieces to read." I'd love to see a story titled, "How the system sabotages women's success." Or "What's A Boy Gotta Do To Stop Holding Women Back?" Or "Why Society Is Holding Women Down, Even As They Try To Leap."

Things will only start to change once we stop blaming women, and start challenging the flawed system they must navigate. And I have no problem saying that assertively.

Now . . . where's my raise?

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