An image of a track with a couple of sneakers laying down. A tree and grass in the background.

Forget the glass ceiling, I’m worried about the hurdles

April 29, 2020

In the early years of my career as a young female mechanical engineer, all I heard about were stories of the glass ceiling and how my job as a woman in a male-dominated profession was to make it to the top and break on through. I made a fairly drastic career change early-on, and have now spent more than 12 years as a founder, social entrepreneur and leader in the nonprofit/social innovation sector. Yet as disparate as these two worlds may seem to be, in one aspect they are surprisingly similar: gender power dynamics. Despite the knowledge, skills and experience that I have accumulated over the last two decades it often feels as though I have made little progress in this area. It continually trips me over, knocks me down or undermines the foundations that I’ve so painstakingly built. So much so in fact that I have come to suspect that not only is the glass ceiling not the answer, but that our continual focus on it may indeed be part of the problem.

For those of you who are familiar with my teaching or writing you will know that I like to use metaphors. But what happens when we get those metaphors wrong? From my own personal experience as well as through coaching many young indigenous women and women of colour, I’ve come to realize that the metaphor of the glass ceiling tells the completely wrong story about the work that must be done to address inequality. If we really want to make progress on addressing inequality – gender and otherwise – then I believe it’s time to forget about the ceiling and focus on the hurdles.

But let me back up. I want to start by sharing a story that happened to me just last week, while alone on lockdown in the beautiful Piemonte countryside in Northern Italy.

Going on 7 weeks of lockdown, the ability to go out for a ride or a run every day has been a huge blessing. Surrounded by nature, I know the benefit to my mental health far outweighs the small risk that I could come into contact with someone and transmit or contract COVID19.  With just me, the orchards and vineyards, I figure there isn’t a lot that can go wrong (apart from being attacked by a xenophobic dachshund last week).

And so I set out last Friday around 11:30am, with the latest episode of This American Life playing on my headphones – another beautiful spring morning. I have a route that I take every few days: I traverse the shady aisles of hazelnut plantations, trail along some old tractor paths, then make my way through the vineyards and down to the river. At the river, I turn right and follow it for a few kilometers along a bumpy service track that accesses the hydroelectric station, turning around just before reaching the main road. It’s not unusual to see someone out exercising or working at the power plant. I smile and wave, throw in a couple of Italian words for practice, and keep going.

On this day there is an older gentleman in a black sedan parked by the hydroelectric station. As I go to run by, he gets out of the car and makes as though to stop me. He says something I don’t really hear about getting a fine for being out here and laughs. Apart from his advanced age, I see little else giving him any authority and so determine this is just small talk, a way to connect. During this time of social distancing we all need connection. “Grazie” I say, and shrug. As normally happens after hearing me stumble through a couple of sentences, he realizes I am not Italian and starts with the usual questions. I am studying in Torino. Yes I live here. I am Australian. Vocabulary exhausted, I throw in an ‘arrivederci’ and continue on my run. Back to Ira Lewis.

It’s only now on reflection that I realized I had started planning escape routes before I even saw him the second time. It wasn’t even a conscious process, just learned behavior. As I turned around and made my way back along the track, I began to go through the scenarios…a car can’t come this far down here, so he’d have to be on foot. I could go left, jump in the river. What about my phone and airpods? I’m kind of attached to them and I might need them post-escape. What about right and into the forest? How far would I have to run? He’s kinda old – maybe he has coronavirus? Where are the nearest houses? I’ve done this kind of escape planning so many times, it’s like an auto-pilot entertainment at this point. A fantasy in my head. Because what I invariably do in reality never looks like that.

I’d slowed briefly to a walk because I realized I had missed the last ten minutes of my podcast due to my MacGyver-ish daydreaming. I skipped back, came around the corner and looked up as I broke back into a jog. And there was the black sedan, now parked at a small bridge that I had to cross back over. And there was the man. And the man was naked.

But there’s no MacGyver. Rather than any heroic escapes, the story that begins to play in my head is completely different from the one I’d imagined less than 5 minutes ago. There must be a perfectly good reason for this man to be standing there beside his car, now naked. Swimming? Getting changed into his work clothes? Putting on waders? I offer him a thousand stupid excuses in my head. I feel embarrassed for intruding on his space, like I’ve done something wrong. I pull my hat down, look in the other direction and run quickly past. At least I’ll get a good time on my last mile.

Trip. Fall. Get back up.

I shake it off and turn up the volume but a few minutes later, lost once again in my podcast, I hear a noise. I turn to see the black sedan driving up behind me. I stumble, move to the side of the road and stop running. It pulls up beside me. This time, our man does not get out. I suspect there wasn’t enough time for him to put his pants back on and come after me, so I’m grateful for this small courtesy. Grandpa starts talking. He tells me I’m pretty, says he’d like to get to know me and asks if he can have my number so we can go on a date once coronavirus is over.

This is where it gets interesting. Or annoying. Or depressing. (For me).

Trip. Fall. Get back up.

I wish that I had responded by telling him that since I’d already seen his penis, there was no need to go on a date. Firstly because it would mean that my Italian had made some seriously impressive progress over the last month. Secondly it would mean that I had finally managed to change my story.

But I didn’t.

I did what I always do in these situations: I smiled, I was polite. In my fumbling Italian I made up a lie as to why it wouldn’t be possible – I wouldn’t be here much longer, I was leaving Italy, I couldn’t remember my phone number – anything and everything rather than give a straight-up no that may upset the person in front of me. I recently told a friend that I was nice to a fault. This is what I meant.

Why do I do this?

Because the story in my head – the one that is justifying this man’s actions while looking for things that I did wrong – is too powerful. “Be nice, don’t rock the boat” it says. It’s a story built from a lifetime of experience and constant reinforcement. “If you rock the boat, it’s your fault” it says. And who’s to say this story is wrong? “Just remember that as strong as you feel, a man is always stronger”it says. And my body knows. My body remembers.

Trip. Fall. Get back up.

To cut a long story short and give it a somewhat happy ending at that moment a rider came around the path. The spell was broken and I saw my way out. I crammed my headphone back in and ran off in the direction of the biker, blessing this section of the path that a car would not easily be able to drive over. I made it home. It’s the end of this story – but there’s always a sequel.

I’m not shocked. I’m not upset. Maybe I should be. It’s happened so many times that it’s hardly worth mentioning. But I am disappointed.

A colleague from my Masters program recently sent out one of those notes where he described each of us (his classmates) in two adjectives. I got “aggressively assertive”. I felt hurt. I don’t know why. Maybe because it felt like an unjust representation – if he could’ve seen me by the river?…Or not. Disappointment lingers.

This time around (thankfully) there is very little room for self-recrimination – something I’m very good at. I wasn’t wearing makeup, I wasn’t wearing revealing clothing, I hadn’t had a drink. Nothing to blame (see how the story works?)

No, this time around I’m disappointed not in my actions but in my reaction. Because I have worked so hard to question, challenge and change this story. I repeat those mantras: “Be kind, not nice”, “Setting boundaries is about loving ourselves”, “I am enough”. I read it, I write it, I teach it, I talk it…but apparently I still can’t walk it. Brene Brown and my therapist would have a field day.

But let’s get back to our metaphors.

For years I have heard folks talk about the glass ceiling. Women proudly claim that they’ve broken through because they made it to the top. Or  business leaders point out that they’ve removed the barriers because they now have women or people of color sitting at the table. But in my experience it was never the ceiling. For me it was – is – the glass hurdles: the unseen stumbling blocks that trip me over, knock me down, and undermine my confidence when I least expect it.

One of my friends called me after all of this happened, insistent on knowing if the man hurt me. No, nothing. It’s fine. I’m fine. He didn’t hurt me…

He just reminded me that for all of my aggressive assertiveness I’m not as free as I think I am, because fear is the greatest inhibitor of freedom. And he reminded me (lest I forget) that I must be hypervigilant and never let my guard down, even in the peaceful countryside in Northern Italy.

Trip. Fall. Get back up.

Have you ever tried to walk through a pitch black room with your eyes desperately straining to make out the furniture so you don’t run into anything? That’s what being hypervigilant to invisible hurdles feels like. Whether it’s taking twice as long to get dressed in the morning because I am second- and third-guessing my choice of outfit to ensure I give the right impression, or changing my route to one that’s a little longer but has a few less quiet streets, or over-analyzing an invitation to lunch to discuss a business proposal. Maybe it’s just a Friday morning run. It’s tiring. Exhausting. And every time I trip and fall, it takes time and energy to get back up.

And what’s most challenging of all is that because we don’t talk about it – because we only focus on the glass ceiling – for those that don’t face these hurdles you can’t even know that they’re there.

I have a dear friend who describes himself as a W.O.R.M (wealthy, older, rich man). He is definitely one of the more self-aware, enlightened and genuine WORMS that I’ve met. We talked at some length about these two different metaphors and how they relate to broader issues of inclusion and equality. His question to me: what do I do if I don’t even know it’s there, and can’t even see it once you tell me? It’s believe this is a valid and honest question from someone who truly wants to help. So here’s my response to him and anyone else out there that is committed to being an ally in gender equality.

First of all, trust me that the hurdles are there. Learn to recognize them and help to call them out.

Secondly, don’t acknowledge the hurdle but judge me when I stumble. Asking me “why didn’t you just…?”is failing to recognize the deeper trauma that generations of gender inequality has caused. Shifting the needle is a collective, intergenerational effort: not a couple of sessions with my therapist and a copy of Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection.

Thirdly, recognize that we aren’t running the same race. What for some is a quick sprint to the finish line is for others a double marathon with olympic hurdles. Ask yourself: how can I be a supportive champion to the olympic marathon runners in my life?

And finally, when we all make it to a seat at that proverbial table (glass ceiling appropriately shattered), take the time to see and acknowledge who is seated there – not just for diversity, but for the stories of strength, triumph and resilience that they represent.

Photo by form PxHere
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