Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Triangulating the glass ceiling

Orr - glass ceiling As I talk about my future career alternatives with friends and colleagues, the potential for a “glass ceiling” emerges repeatedly.  Am I aspiring to positions beyond my reach?  Will I be considered for positions where I’m qualified?

I’ve always been a positivist: believing that the ceiling is just the natural upper bound of a career’s trajectory, the limit of advancement defined by talent, time, and circumstance, unaided by fortune or ambition.

But it’s been an interesting conversation.  Some disagree with me, holding that there is an arbitrary limit for anyone that results from simple discrimination trumping hard work and merit.

What form might the glass ceiling take?

Princeton describes it as “an attitudinal or organizational bias that prevents women from advancing to leadership positions”.  To me, this seems archaic: I have worked comfortably with, and for, women throughout my career.  In my experience, people earn respect and advancement based on their competency, skills, and congeniality.  Still, it is very real to women I talk with, and it may be that I’ve missed it by working primarily in research and project teams in my career.

House-MD Others have generalized the term to include “situations where the advancement of a qualified person within the hierarchy of an organization is stopped at a lower level because of any form of discrimination”.  This one hits closer to home, because I can think of any number of highly qualified people who have been shuttled into the career ghettos.  Their ceiling lies at the public boundary: at the top of the hierarchy, leaders are chosen to reinforce the image that the company wants to project to customers, the media, and investors.  The ability to communicate clearly and to inspire confidence may be the only necessary qualities.  “House” need not apply.

Intriguingly, I also found this definition: “The glass ceiling is the seemingly unattainable 1st page ranking in a search engine, particularly for very competitive keywords. Sites and pages remain on the 1st page and are hard to displace because they are given really high rankings and have extremely high link popularity.”  Extrapolated, it suggests that those above the glass ceiling form a self-reinforcing club: those at the top accumulate perceptions and credibility that keep them at the top.  I suspect that there is a lot of truth in this.

All of these definition have the common quality that a person’s potential for advancement may be limited by bias and circumstance, rather than by drive and accomplishment.  It’s not the way I treat others nor how I think about my own opportunities.  But, as I seek my next position, I sometimes find myself wondering whether perceptions of age or disability, personality or nationality, might, in fact, limit my aspirations.

And, more to the point, how to recognize and counter it.

Photo credit: Judith Orr


Unknown said...

I wish you good luck in this. I find myself in almost the similar situation. Best wishes for the New Year!

Dave Hampton said...

I have left-ankle weakness which gives me a bit of a limp when I get tired...I don't pay much attention to it and don't let it slow me down. But I had feedback from a recent job interview that it impacted the way that they perceived my 'energy' for the job. That surprised me a lot and led to some of the thinking behind this post.

Here's hoping that the barriers continue to fall for everyone...