Thursday, June 06, 2002

This is a piece I recently wrote for my own blog site, but I thought it might be of relevance here as well, for the sake of discussion, which I'd love to hear...

we are our own glass ceilings

I am coordinating a conference attended by MIT faculty and financial industry executives. Of 11 faculty and 14 senior executives, only one attendee is a woman. I am appalled that there is only one woman. And I am intrigued by her. In an industry so blatantly ceilinged in glass, who is she and how did she come to break through?

At lunch, I make a point to seat myself at her table. I watch her interactions, her mannerisms. I want to learn something from her; I want her approval.

My first impression is that she seems harder, overtly shrewder than her male peers. The old question: is this because she is, or because we are accustomed to women being gentler and warmer? I note that her gaze is not enveloping and her smile is not warm -- when offered, it is very obviously for effect.

I watch as she does a quick assessment, as introductions are made around the table, of who is important and who is not. I am mildly stunned when she stops short of me -- she does not bother to ask my name or my affiliation. Instead she zones in immediately on the Dean. She dominates the conversation.

However, I am not willing to accept my status of invisible simply because she has decreed it. I know the posture of confidence, and I have learned how to wear it well enough, along with my moderately expensive suit. I make eye contact around the table and join the conversation when I have something to say. The male faculty members acknowledge me, but she does not.

Her only acknowledgement of me throughout the entire meal is an off-handed remark about receptionists and their distaste for being asked to fetch coffee; at which point she looks at me and smiles. For effect.

I am livid.

I am far too professional to react. I smile back. For effect.

But I want to know in what way I communicated myself to be a receptionist. Just last week my boss, also a woman, was remarking on how interesting she finds it that the faculty here (yes, primarily male) speak to me so readily, as if I am a peer rather than a servant, and treat me with respect, as if I am worthy -- me being but a program administrator of junior status. This is surprising to her, and fairly unusual, she tells me, as well as commendable -- me being neither senior in rank nor male in gender. But it is not surprising to me, because when at work I pay a lot of attention to the way in which I present myself -- the ways in which poise, dress, and mannerisms communicate professionalism, status, and whether one expects respect or not. Of course these men respect me: I tell them to in no uncertain terms through an array of non-verbal communication cues.

So how is it then, that this woman dismisses me and my carefully articulated communication cues so quickly, and makes the assumption that I am merely a receptionist with little more on my mind than whether to be peeved should someone ask me for coffee? On what basis has she made this assumption?

If this woman had been a man, I would have thought her a sexist pig right out of the 1950s.

I do not really believe that glass ceilings block women simply because they are women. I believe that the sparse appearance of women at the top has much more to do with how women communicate themselves, the goals we set, where we place our priorities, and quite simply, how much we are prepared to ask for -- or demand. I believe that I can go as far as I like, achieve anything I put my mind to.

But this woman has taken a pretty hefty swing at this belief of mine. Is she an anomaly? Or are we, in this case, as always, our own gender's worst enemy?

1 comment:

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