Category Archives: the glass ceiling

Wishing away the glass ceiling

A few weeks ago, the Brookings Institution published a report on a study investigating why there are so few women in public offices. The study was conducted by Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox in early 2008; I found out about it via articles in The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. (That was several weeks ago. I would have blogged it then if I’d had the time.)

In this report, we argue that the fundamental reason for women’s under-representation is that they do not run for office. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don’t.

That’s a little bit like saying that I don’t play the lottery because I would not want to win a million dollars.

I’ve never run for public office or thought seriously of doing so, but I’m familiar enough with the glass ceiling in science, including the actual research and the administration of science. Based on that experience, I can say confidently enough that a woman who doesn’t run for something or other is not necessarily lacking in ambition. She may very well have other reasons, such as a realistic and sober assessment of the level of support that her candidacy will attract, the expected resistance she will face if elected, or the cost to her professional and personal life.

Politics is the art of the possible. It’s also the art of knowing what is possible, what is not, and what is not worth its price.

On to the details. Continue reading



Filed under feminism, politics, the glass ceiling

Their own wisdom

This post is for Hillary Clinton.

Now even in the matter of homesteads women are not allowed free land unless they are widows with the care of minor children […] The alleged reason for this discrimination is that women cannot perform the required duties and so, to save them from the temptation of trying, the government in its fatherly wisdom denies them the chance.

But women are doing homestead duties whenever homestead duties are being done. Women suffer the hardships – cold, hunger, loneliness – against which there is no law; and, when the homestead is “proved,” all the scrub cleared, and the land broken, the husband may sell the whole thing without his wife’s knowledge, and he can take the money and depart, without a word. Against this there is no law wither!

No person objects to the homesteader’s wife having to get out wood, or break up scrub land, so long as she is not doing these things for herself and has no legal claim on the result of her labour.

– Nellie McClung, May 1916

The laws have changed over the last 90 years, but that business with claiming the fruits of our labour for ourselves is still unfinished. We may be legally entitled to equal pay, but just recently the U.S. senate blocked a bill that would have actually allowed women to enforce it. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted for the bill. John McCain did not vote, but was happy about the outcome.

Even when the results of our labour are legally ours, it’s just, well, impolite of us to insist on claiming them. Hillary has experienced it. I have experienced it. Many of us have.

I’ve never believed that women should support Hillary because of their experience of discrimination or backlash. There are better reasons to vote for a candidate, Senator Clinton or otherwise. What are her policies? How exactly is she going to help us? But it is because of that experience that we understand a little bit better what she is doing and why, regardless of whether we agree with her or not.

She didn’t quit when she was told she should? If you had given up a fight for the sake of collegiality, only to have it rubbed in your face, if you had been asked to concede time and again for no apparent reason except that it would be nice of you to do so, and if you didn’t see any of that happening to your male colleagues, you too would develop a gag reflex when it comes to voluntary concessions. You might, in fact, aim to go too far in the other direction, because that’s what you do first if you want to find a good balance.

She was negative and divisive in her campaign? Yes, she was, and that has cost her. She has tested everyone’s patience, mine included, with the Bosnian sniper fire stories and the endless speculations on how she would be winning if the rules were different. The rules are what they are, and she, of all people, should know that well enough. She’s spent too many years learning and following the rules.

But back to being divisive? Just recently, I came upon a study that claims that women don’t get elected to public offices because they’re not really interested. There will be a separate post about this, because I’m a little bit familiar with the “ambition gap,” but for now I’ll just say that this perception is a real problem for us. If Hillary had been less negative, the default assumption would have been that she didn’t really want the job all that much. She did want it, and she was negative, and that got her in another kind of trouble.

Barack Obama had a whole different set of default assumptions to fight. He handled it better, and he won. I hope that he wins in November. But this post is about Hillary.

Next time that a woman runs for the U.S. presidency, I hope that she will run a better organized campaign and that she will not have a history of politically expedient, but ultimately misguided, votes. But also, that she will not have to spend much time establishing that, yes, a woman might actually run more than a token campaign. That she will be judged on her policies, not her clothing. Perhaps she will even get to the point of being able to run without first having to make all those compromises that become a liability later on. Then she might be able to win.

And that just might be possible because of Hillary’s campaign. In the end, she did change the rules. A female candidate is no longer just a token candidate, it’s someone who might actually get the nomination. It’s someone who might have a very close fight with one of the best politicians, of either gender, that we’ve seen in a long time. Someone who does want the job and will likely be good at it if elected.

The glass ceiling is made of presumptions and beliefs. Hillary did break that.

Here’s how Nellie McClung ends her essay:

Women will make mistakes, of course, and pay for them. That will be nothing new – they have always paid for men’s mistakes. It will be a change to pay for their own; and in paying for them they will learn wisdom.


Filed under feminism, politics, the glass ceiling

Gloria Steinem on the gender divide

Gloria Steinem writes about Clinton and Obama in a New York Times op-ed. Read the whole thing if you can, it’s worth it. She starts by pointing out that a female candidate with Obama’s biography would never have any chance:

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

[…] there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

[…] what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t. […]

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

Oh yes we do.

As if to illustrate the point, the same New York Times follows up with the article Women’s Support for Clinton Rises in Wake of Perceived Sexism. Given that the incidents mentioned in the article are obvious enough (if you’ve missed the most recent one, this Tom Toles cartoon explains it well enough), do we really have to call it “perceived” sexism? Better yet, could we say that women are angered over the sexist treatment of Senator Clinton, but the actual reason why they support her is that they think that she would make a good President?



Filed under feminism, politics, the glass ceiling