So Consumed by ‘The Glass Ceiling’…

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14 March 2016

Sometime back, a group of young students from one of the premier MBA schools in India approached me to write an article for them for their magazine. I had been associated with the school for a while now as a guest speaker and have spoken a couple of times in the women leadership forums organized by the student group. The turnaround time for the article was about 48 hours and I knew that it meant burning the figurative ‘midnight oil’. Nonetheless, I wanted to contribute and that made my time spent on writing that much more easy and pleasant. Well, I did send in the article (on time!!!) and then forgot all about it. It was a month later that I met this friend of mine who mentioned that she had glanced through my write up and proceeded to offer some ‘friendly advice’. “Anu, did you really have to refute the existence of the glass ceiling? Everyone is talking about it and as a woman, shouldn’t you have participated in this discussion by (ahem) blending in?” Whatever happened to the freedom of expression? The last I checked, my country believed in democracy and I did have the right to an opinion. I smiled, gave her the reassuring nod and moved on with the day. I still don’t know if that article has been published at all. I haven’t heard from the students as yet. I spoke my mind and I am happy about it. The incident though clearly highlights the need that most of us experience – the need to blend in. And in a typical Indian society, it is far more pronounced especially when we talk of gender issues. Well, the fact is that someone noticed what I wrote and proceeded to talk about it. We need many more such instances and guess, this was the defining moment for me - a moment compelled me to write more, talk about issues a lot more than what I am doing now. I have since then been writing a lot more, addressing these issues with my students across in schools and colleges where I lecture. Some of you must trying this in schools and colleges in semi-urban and rural area.!!!!!

I am sharing the article I wrote with you…… I did post it on my blog. However, I do want to speak my mind to a larger audience and I am taking this opportunity to Lean In….

I remember reading somewhere that “…after a visit to the beach, it’s hard to believe that we live in a material society”! But we do live in a material society – a society that is replete with routines that are financially, socially, and time demanding. There is no legal need, no real penalty but a pressure, a kind of symbolic violence that makes us succumb to the routine. We seem to live in a society that barrages us with the incessant need to make certain investments, buy a particular shampoo, eat in a special restaurant, buy a house,.. The list is endless. And this cajolery happens in very structured ways – advertisements, marketing, peer pressure and last but definitely not the least ‘word of mouth’. If the ads don’t get to us, our family will. If our family will let us be, our friends might not! We will hear about it, and we will make a choice. The question though being, “Is it ‘us’ who really make up our mind?” The influential information that we receive about fashion, beauty, mass culture, comes to us through the media, such as magazines, posters, flyers, TV, radio, and the internet – modern technologies of mass persuasion. It crystallizes public opinion and in a way controls the masses – the elements that constitute consumerism!!

Consumerism has become a corner stone of today’s post-industrial age material society. By the age of 10, a child today has seen at least a million commercial messages via the TV, radio, newspaper and billboards, and over the years is exposed to an even more complex society where he / she grapples with ideas and concepts and then struggles to find answers. What career should I pursue? What languages should I learn? What should I invest in? Does God exist? Am I getting a fair deal? With this kind of exposure, it’s tough to live in a modern world today without being a product of consumer society.

Consumerism is a concept that an expanding consumption of goods is advantageous to the economy! This can also be applied to the intake of a thought or a belief. The theory of consumerism maintains that consumers are psychically manipulated by the mass media to crave more and more consumer goods, and thus power an economy that depends on constantly expanding sales. There is the product / thought that someone (a Jane Doe) believes in and perhaps has experienced its existence in whatever form. Jane Doe then talks about it. The locus of consumerism resides in the production function. And when Jane talks about it, the locus resides in the production, which in this case, is in the ‘talking’ of that thought. Once articulated, the creator of that thought has no control over it. The thought takes a life of its own and is further disseminated in varied forms

The concept of ‘the glass ceiling’ is one such. The proliferation of a conviction that ‘the glass ceiling’ exists is unpretentious and comes across as a powerful compensation for oppression! So, when we speak of the existence of a glass ceiling, and substantiate it with examples, case studies, numbers and the works, it reflects a belief in its all-pervading presence. One of the biggest conundrums in this age of plenty, addictions, and depression is that the debate on ‘the glass ceiling’ has become a part of an everyday conversation in the corporate world. It has become the norm for leadership forums, seminars, conferences, training programs, articles to examine the glass ceiling! When we talk about it in schools, colleges and to anyone who is starting off on her career, it reads as “It’s out there and you need to be ready for it!” With our co-workers in Corporate India, the debate is centered on what needs to be done to break through the ceiling, and the symptoms displayed thereof. The discussion is centered on the premise that the glass ceiling is not simply an obstacle for a person based on his /her inability to handle a higher level job. Rather, the glass ceiling applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women”. The debate is kept alive in more ways than one to ensure that, as a society, we stay focused on the symbol of oppression –the glass ceiling!!!! If this fact does not get a woman to pause and realize that her naiveté is taken for granted, then dare I say, that the product has well consumed its target audience.

There is a lot debated on what ‘causes the glass ceiling?’ And rightfully so! The deliberations are an attempt to create a fair, diverse and healthy environment to the work force. However, these discussions, in more ways than one, also tend to reinforce and strengthen the presence of the glass ceiling. We sashay through the formative years of our careers convinced that there is a need to display a set of behaviors to cope with the glass ceiling. These debates, thus take on the appearance of a “conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the mass” (Bernays, Edward). And those who influence, constitute the ‘invisible government’ – a force that reinforces

the idea in a way that it gains immense speed and strength as it spreads rapidly. In this context, the female consumer is definitely not happily consuming but is now being consumed by the inestimable reflections on how to counteract this invisible barrier! We begin to play vigilante to ourselves! Watch it unfurl in conversations at the workplace, in conference rooms, during appraisal discussions, in the movies, ads, and on TV!!

We spend an immense amount of time dealing with the consequences of the ‘glass ceiling’. As a society, we find our answers through policies, procedures and within the legal framework. How do we deal with harassment at the workplace? What are the laws that we need to ensure a society that is free of discrimination? At an individual level, there is a great deal of time and effort being spent in being that ‘special’ and ‘perfect’ person at home and at work. And in the process we forget the essence of ourselves as an individual. Therein, lies the rationale of why and when we experience the proverbial ‘glass ceiling’. Our life, therefore, turns out to be a series of moments where we move from one role to another attempting to display one perfect behaviour after another. This show can’t go on forever!! It needs to come to a stop at some point. It is at that exact moment when we say ‘ENOUGH’ that the glass ceiling materializes. The ability to ‘walk the talk’; a dialogue which we have perfected is now at the brink of a menopause. We get tired of ambling that talk. It is the struggle to put the real me in a box in order to go back and do my job. We do our job, as do most of us, in all integrity, at the end shredding a piece of us. The essence of being is in our ability to be ourselves minus the mask. We don’t need to be a vigilante to deal with the glass ceiling.

Can we pull back the conventional tentacles of debating the symbols of oppression to make new rules for a more fair game? Rejecting the consumption of the idea of a ‘glass ceiling’ is liberating. The need is to create or look for an alternative – a choice that goes beyond the invisible and debilitating forces, a thought that is empowering in its very essence and guarantees a freedom to explore the universe. How about some simple Blue Sky Thinking?