What's Worse -- Glass Ceilings or Glass Cellars?

Harvard Business Review

Benevolent sexism. Motherhood penalty. Dominant negotiation paradigm. These were some of the ideas discussed at a conference on gender and work hosted by Harvard Business School last week. According to the academic presenters, all three contribute to ongoing discrimination against women in the corporate world. And they have the research to prove it.

In one example of benevolent sexism cited by Lawrence University's Peter Glick, a group of junior female Wall Street law firm associates received more narrative praise than their male counterparts but lower numerical ratings. The implication is that bosses were too nice to openly criticize the women and, as a result, those employees didn't get the feedback they needed to improve or advance. Both HBS's Amy Cuddy and Stanford's Shelley Correll outlined the disadvantages faced by employed mothers, including a 5% per child wage penalty (PDF), while Hannah Riley Bowles of Harvard's Kennedy School and Laura Kray of the University of California, Berkeley explained(PDF) why associating negotiation with the hard-nosed, quantified division of resources makes it seem like women are worse negotiators. Compelling stuff.

Recently, however, an HBR reader introduced me to three very different terms related to gender and work: Apex fallacy. Glass cellar. Feminine imperative. All of these, he argued, are contributing to a "war on men" in the workplace. This was an issue I'd asked about in my essay called "The Silent Sex" in the March issue of HBR. The apex fallacy is the idea that we use the most visible members of a group to make generalizations about the entire group; i.e. we see prominent men at the top of the pyramid and think all men are doing well, when, in fact, there are a great many at the bottom of the pyramid too. The glass cellar refers to that lowest tier of hazardous or poorly paid jobs (think firefighters, truckers, lumberjacks, coal miners and construction workers) that are mostly held by men. (As National Organization for Men president Warren Farrell noted in this post, of the 25 "worst" professions as determined by the Jobs Rated Almanac, 24 have a workforce that is 85% or more male.) And the feminine imperative is described by bloggers as the tendency for women to define social rules and morality to meet their own needs. Less research and data here than at last week's conference, of course, but certainly food for thought.

So who's right? The feminists and gender studies specialists who study how organizational structure, systems and cultures continue to keep women down? Or the men's rights activists and writers who claim that men are now the ones being devalued and put at a disadvantage, at least in some contexts?

In my years as journalist, I've heard stories about both traditional discrimination and the reverse; about women who have been passed over for promotions and those whose contribution to organizational diversity has helped them leapfrog more qualified men. I know the statistics on leadership: women are greatly underrepresented. But what's the view like today from the middle manager's office, the R&D lab, the IT service desk, the call center, the assembly line, the retail store floor, the college classroom? As the mother of both a boy and a girl, whose future do I have to worry about most?

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