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Sexism, celebrity and the glass ceiling


This week, The Economist published a particularly depressing article about the position of women in high-level business jobs. The piece begins by noting that twenty years have passed since The Wall Street Journal coined the phrase “glass ceiling” to refer to the invisible (yet seemingly effective,) barriers to women’s advancement to the top echelons of managerial success in corporations. It has also been ten years since the Glass Ceiling Commission, created by Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, issued its fact-finding report, “Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital,” describing and explaining the dismal status of women and minorities within the corporate world.


The reason The Economist’s article is so dispiriting is that the statistics summarized by the Glass Ceiling Commission and statistics gathered today are so similar. In 1995, women held 45.7% of American jobs, and earned on average 68% the salary of their male counterparts. In 2005, women hold 46.5% of American jobs, and earn 72% the salary of their male coworkers. The Economist further notes that the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton discovered that, of chief executives leaving their positions in 1998, only 0.7% were female. And in 2004? That’s right, 0.7%.

As The Economist notes, it is not as if the corporate world has done absolutely nothing to advance the cause of diversity. In a purely self-interested form of motivation, it is a well-accepted fact that diversity is an invaluable characteristic to effectively problem-solve. Having a corporate board that is not solely made up of (white) males is thus a positive characteristic that is desirable on the grounds of profit. Many studies also show that women have some seemingly gender-based advantages when it comes to leading a company, such as greater links between the emotional and rational thought processes than those possessed by men, that would at least arguably make women more effective CEOs and corporate leaders.

Significant barriers, however, still exist. The Economist’s article ably discusses scores of the factors that play into the different hurdles women have to jump to advance in a corporate hierarchy, but one struck me as particularly of-the-moment: the ongoing expectation that women will continue to fulfill the more traditional female jobs in the home in addition to any outside career that they have. Women who work outside the home are still generally responsible for the jobs they would perform had they decided to be a housewife; fixing meals, cleaning the house, and so on. And while maternity leave is obviously a concern only for women, not only is paternity leave essentially a non-issue in America, but it is still almost universally expected that if one parent leaves a career in order to care for children, it will be the wife. (This assumes that the married couple is heterosexual, of course.)

As so much of my academic work, and at the moment free time, involves working on my computer, I gleefully spend far too much time reading entertainment news and gossip online. Because of this, I think that The Economist’s analysis is reflected in American popular culture in several recent scandals and tabloid stories.

The more recent example that came to mind is the revelation of Jude Law’s infidelities with the young woman employed to be a nanny to his young children. In an excellent article on by Rebecca Traister, she notes that the tabloid explanations of the scandal include the nanny asking Law why he didn’t get a wife who didn’t want a career of her own, bolstered by a report that Law defended his cheating to his fiancée Sienna Miller by insisting that he “needed [Miller] to be there for me.”

Similarly, after the marriage between Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston broke up, I was seriously annoyed by the speculative condemnation of Aniston for driving Pitt away by being too devoted to her career to have children. And as Pitt’s purported (and still unconfirmed) relationship with Angelina Jolie was also nitpicked ad nauseum by the entertainment media, the canonization of Jolie as Angelina, Devoted Mother similarly rankled me. The comparison of Aniston and Jolie was particularly ridiculous as Jolie is proof that a woman can have children and not sacrifice a successful career—yet the tut-tutting over Aniston’s narrow minded and selfish refusal to sacrifice her own ambitions in the service of some anachronistic conception of motherhood reached a fever pitch.

This may be a superficial form of recognizing real-world examples, but in a way I feel that the sexist assumptions reflected in the more innocuous world of celebrity relationships more overtly reflects the much more powerful, yet insidious, anti-feminist mind-set operating in the corporate world. It is much more accepted, and thus much easier, to say “well Jennifer Aniston should have spent a year without making a film and had a baby, if she really wanted to save her marriage,” than to say “well we can’t put women on a corporate board, because then how will they be able to make a home-cooked meal for their husbands every night?”

I think that is one of the rarely-stated, yet most damaging, gender stereotypes in effect in America today. And it definitely cuts both ways—men who choose to be stay-at-home fathers, or even stay-at-home husbands, are seen to be lesser in status, even less manly, than their working counterparts. The charge is often leveled at feminists that they don’t want women to stay at home, that they think any woman who chooses not to pursue a profession is somehow less than a woman with a professional career. I don’t think this charge is true of the feminist movement—the whole point of feminism is to allow women free choice, not to simply push them into a different life path than before—and furthermore, I think the accusation muddles the real issue. The only “problem” feminists such as myself have with the idea of “women’s work” at home is that it is labeled, and continues to be considered, the exclusive province of females. Being a stay-at-home parent is just as much of a full-time job as being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. But somehow Americans still have in their heads, even if they claim to accept a CEO of either gender, that “stay-at-home parent” equals a female.

And that, perhaps, may be one of the hardest stereotypes to overcome before we can refer to the days when a Glass Ceiling Commission was necessary as the equivalent of living in the Dark Ages. Not only does the corporate world need to work towards more inclusive and enlightened policies of promotion and leadership, but American culture as a whole needs to accept that the glass ceiling also has glass doors to match, still keeping women in the province of hearth and kitchen.

Dara Purvis can be reach each Monday on Raw Story. You can also visit her on the web at

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