Modern Woman: Part Two — A World of Glass

A modern woman doesn’t have it all figured out because she’s still in the process of figuring it out. That’s what makes her modern. This essay explores hidden barriers that professionally ambitious women face in male-dominated industries.

Adele Barlow
11 min readNov 17, 2021
Photo by Daniel Watson from Pexels

Years ago, I sat in a shiny central London office with two men. One was a partner at a global consulting firm (who was there to ‘green light’ a digital campaign); the other was the CEO of the company I was producing the campaign for.

They spent the first half of the meeting ignoring me as if I wasn’t there. The partner talked about his previous evening at a cabaret nightclub through a long-winded monologue that recapped the evening, where a woman had her period onstage.

The two of them kept chatting for a while, and I stayed silent. I didn’t know what to say or do.

The further I got into my career, the more I experienced episodes like the above — incidents that fell between the cracks of what you’d report to HR. Yet, at the same time, I questioned my integrity. Should I have walked out of the room? Told him to shut up?

As Bumble founder Whitney Wolfe once said:

“I’ve been a feminist, but I was in a room with guys who were behaving like misogynists; I caught myself doing the same. I was scared. I was scared that I’d be targeted by that behaviour, and so it felt safer to just join in. I regret that now; I would never do that now. But that comes with growing up, with learning.”

This — and many other episodes — showed me the concept that gets left out of debates about gender equality in the workplace. This concept is called ‘precarious manhood’.

Manhood is a status that is earned then reaffirmed

Photo by Kats Weil on Unsplash

“Precarious manhood” is an idea put forward by University of South Florida psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello.

They talk about the idea that manhood, unlike womanhood, is a status that is not inherently given — it has to be earned. Even after it is earned, it has to be reaffirmed over and over again.

A man only becomes “a man” when he demonstrates his “manliness.” When some men feel they are being “put down” by women, this threatens their manhood.

To demonstrate their masculinity, they feel the need to be extra aggressive, to reassert themselves. Insecure men need to assert their manhood more because they are not inherently, firmly, deeply confident in their masculinity.

Sadly, for too many men, asserting their manhood often translates into acting like a jerk. But the theory helped me to see that men do not flare up because they lack emotions.

It’s easy to feel like when men put you down — or treat you like a kid or a sex object — it’s because you have no power. But if anything, perhaps you have too much potential power, and they are trying to take it away from you.

We’re still learning how to operate in a new world of changing gender dynamics.

After all, only a century ago, women were ornaments to the lives of men. The men went out and worked and achieved and conquered, while women nurtured and cleaned and cooked.

Up until a hundred years ago, women didn’t work outside the home unless it was in the capacity of a servant or domestic employee. Maybe it was easier for a man to know and express his manhood, as it was a lot more of a given.

In the United Kingdom and the United States, during the First World War, women were needed to perform traditional men’s roles, and they did so. When men returned from the war, many women had to give up their wartime occupations. This happened again a generation later during the Second World War.

It was easy for men to know where they stood.

World War II had given many women an opportunity to participate in the workforce, yet as the war ended, employers reinstated the pre-war gender division of labour.

There were discriminatory practices against women, but there was also a popular culture starting to create the concept of the “proper” role for women. Magazines and films taught women to put aside their interests and to focus on serving their men (the returning male veterans) at home.

When the 1960s came, with its liberating opportunities fuelled by an increase in female workforce participation, education, and availability of birth control, this threatened the notion of the ideal housewife as a feminine ideal.

Still, women continued to feel pressured to conform to the domestic caregiver ideal — where the ultimate goals of any woman’s life were homemaking, marriage, and motherhood.

This was a world where women were taught they could want nothing greater than to bask in their own femininity. The media preached how to catch and keep a man, how to raise kids, how to prepare family meals, and how to keep their husbands happy.

The Feminine Mystique, written in 1963 by Betty Friedan, had talked about The Problem That Had No Name, one which “lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.” As Friedan described:

“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

Treating women as second-class citizens and sexual objects allowed men and society to reinforce expectations of the ideal woman as a housewife, encouraging the return to domesticity that justified women being asked to vacate the post-war workplace.

In the mid-1980s in Britain, almost half (43 per cent in 1984 and 48 per cent in 1987) of people were in support of gendered roles, placing the man as “breadwinner” and the woman as “carer.” The collective belief in the traditional gender divide was strong.

As women’s rights have progressed, there has been a steady decline in the numbers propping up this view. In 2012, only 13 per cent of people still bought it. Still, a Lean In/McKinsey & Company survey in 2016 concluded that women who negotiated for promotions were 30 per cent more likely than men to be labelled intimidating, bossy, or aggressive.

The more strides women make, the more elusive the status of manhood. The more men are displaced, the more they need to assert themselves.

That is the bedrock of toxic work cultures: men believe they need to be dominant to be important. And the women who want to succeed in that system learn from them and emulate them in order to rise to the top too.

What the glass ceiling looks like

The “glass ceiling” phrase is over forty years old and refers to the barrier to success facing women in their careers. It was coined by management consultant Marilyn Loden.

During a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in 1978, Loden noticed how the (female) panellists “focused on the deficiencies in women’s socialisation, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved, and the poor self-image that many women allegedly carried.”

Loden found it difficult to just sit and listen to these criticisms when she knew from her own experiences as an HR professional that the truth was much more complicated.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, laws did not exist in the United States to shield women from workplace harassment or assault, and this was accompanied by a complete lack of awareness in companies about the problem or solutions.

Decades later, what’s the state of the glass ceiling?

I sat down with three friends of friends who worked in finance. They’d studied at top universities, but they had already decided that they weren’t ever going to try and become senior leaders at their banks. They saw it as impossible to reconcile with their desires to marry and have families.

Here are a few stories they shared (this was a few years ago).

“When I was an intern at this bank in London, we had fourteen interns. Twelve white dudes, one Indian guy and me. The guys, at five, would go to the gym, hit the gym for two hours, and then they would all leave at seven. I would leave at seven too, but I had done an extra two hours of work. The guys went to a strip club one weekend. They didn’t invite me. They went to a car show. I would have gone. They didn’t invite me. They all bonded. They all stayed friends. I haven’t kept a single friend from that entire summer.

“In recruiting, when you interview, men are being benchmarked to their peers and other candidates that come in. A woman candidate is always benchmarked to the best that they should be. Say a hiring manager says, ‘I want someone who will make 100 million dollars and be at work from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm. That is my ideal candidate.’ Nobody ever says that, but in their mind, that is the ideal candidate. So yes, expectations for women are much higher than men but at the same job level. Women are expected to outperform. We have a lot more to prove. And yet women are paid less.”

“The other day this guy was like, ‘Oh, I really like this coat on you,’ and he touched it. I’m like, ‘Dude, if I were a guy, this would never happen.’ There’s this guy, he’s my age, also in the private bank. He’s a rugby player. Nobody would ever talk to him like this or fool around with his clothes like this. I’ve seen it. All those MDs talk to him one-on-one as equals. They talk to me as if I were a child. I’m like, ‘Yo! I’m not. I’m handling all your trades and shit, so clearly you trust me on that level, so treat me like an adult.’”

“I had this in New York. There was this big Italian American guy. He was the head of one of our teams. Very successful, always on TV, blah, blah, blah. He would always call me ‘sweetheart.’ At first, I was trying to get on his good side so I would get more work from him, and I killed it on a project with him. He was like, ‘Thanks, sweetheart.’ He got me chocolate-covered strawberries. I was like, ‘Hey, did you get Trent strawberries the last time he killed it for you?’ He said no. I was like, ‘Why did you give them to me then? What did you get him?’ He said, ‘nothing.’”

Photo by Jessica Johnston on Unsplash

In 2018, Chicago Booth Professor Marianne Bertrand argued there are still three key reasons why the glass ceiling persists in excluding women from top-paying jobs:

  • “College-educated women, more often than men, avoid majors that lead to higher-earning occupations;”
  • “Women are more risk-averse than men are;”
  • “Demands for child care, housework and other life chores outside of work fall more heavily on women than on men.”

However, the women I spoke to had majors that had led to them into finance. They were not more risk-averse. And they didn’t have kids yet. Instead, they were battling against an entire culture and system that was predicated upon helping its leaders assert their masculinity.

Glass Walls and Cliffs

Sue Unerman and Kathryn Jacob spent three decades building careers in media. Their book The Glass Wall: Success Strategies for Women at Work talks about how this is the new glass ceiling. It’s not just about being passed over for the next promotion; it’s about being excluded by male-oriented office culture. Unerman wrote in 2016:

“There is a glass wall. Women can see through it — to the meetings that they are excluded from, the casual conversations that accelerate careers that they are not participating in, the times a boss does not consider a woman in her thirties for a promotion because she might go on maternity leave.”

There is also the “glass cliff,” first coined by University of Exeter researchers Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam in 2005. The glass cliff is “a phenomenon whereby women (and other minority groups) are more likely to occupy positions of leadership that are risky and precarious.” Maybe the share price performance is struggling, or there is a scandal or reputational risk.

A follow-up study by Alison Cook and Christy Glass at Utah State University looked at Fortune 500 companies over a fifteen-year period and made similar discoveries: when it came to weakly performing firms, white women and men and women of colour were likelier than white men to be promoted to CEO.

University of Houston psychology professor Kristin J. Anderson explained that companies may offer glass cliff positions to women because they believe they win either way:

“If the woman succeeds, the company is better off. If she fails, the company is no worse off, she can be blamed, the company gets credit for having been egalitarian and progressive, and can return to its prior practice of appointing men.”

Haslam argues that women executives “are likelier than men to accept glass cliff positions because they do not have access to the high-quality information and support that would ordinarily warn executives away,” while professors Ali Cook and Christy Glass say, “women and other minorities view risky job offers as the only chance they are likely to get.”

Even if women manage to break through the glass ceiling and the glass wall and accept leadership positions, they are more likely to take positions that have a higher risk of failure, either because they are appointed to lead organisations in crisis, or because they were not given the resources and support needed for success. Just look at Marissa Mayer and Yahoo.

Five years after Mayer became CEO, having experienced “slowing growth and internal dissent, leading to plummeting employee morale and calls for her resignation,” she left soon after its sale to Verizon was finalised. She went on to start her own venture.

What does the glass cliff mean for women? If a company is struggling, and there isn’t a man who wants to lead it, there will likely be a woman lining up to do so instead, as it might be her only chance to act as CEO for someone else’s company.

I write stories for modern women trying to figure out life, love and business. Read them here.