Brand building through storytelling

Not the glass ceiling but the urinal wall

In 1976, when we still believed in “having it all” and “glass ceiling” meant a skylight with pretensions, I landed my first magazine job amid a flurry of headlines about keen young women like me. We were destined to transform the workplace, it was said, but first we’d better learn to act more like men. Career gurus bombarded us with tips. Leave the family photos at home. Wear an all-business navy blue suit. Exclaim to the guys, “How about those Maple Leafs?”

These days it’s career-minded men who are being told to emulate women. Yes, really. You learn the most amazing things while you’re sitting at the hair salon with goop plastered on your head and nothing to divert you but magazines you’d read nowhere else. Which is how I encountered Men’s Health, the modern guy’s mentor on every facet of manhood—getting laid, getting a six-pack and, yes, getting ahead. Guys had better wise up, warns the magazine. They’ve lost four of the five U.S. jobs that vanished in the recession—also known as the “he-cession.” So what’s an astute young guy to do? Master the tension-zapping smile, the networking potential of gossip. Learn to “tend and befriend”—so much better for the soul than cursing and kicking the door (and maybe breaking your toe while you’re at it). As Men’s Health sums up, “the best way for a man to succeed might actually be to suppress his inner cave man and try to think like a woman[magazine’s italics] instead.”

Sound advice, if you ask me. By now it’s pretty widely accepted that the recent financial cataclysm owes much to the testosterone-fuelled risks taken by Wall Street wheeler-dealers intent on outgunning one another. Even so, I rolled my eyes at the Men’s Health story. The real reason why women have the edge on keeping jobs has nothing to do with their social skills and everything to do with where the axe of recession has dealt the hardest blows—high-paid jobs in construction and manufacturing, where men still outnumber women. Most men don’t want to be retail clerks or health care aides, but these traditionally female jobs haven’t disappeared in such vast numbers.

I used to write about those jobs as a fledgling journalist for women’s magazines. I urged readers to shun the pink-collar ghetto; I lambasted guidance counsellors who steered girls away from science and math. As an editor, I assigned cheerleading stories on women in geology, aviation and politics. “Women-in” stories, I now call them. Like most journalists of that era, I bought the fantasy that equality in the workplace was a simple numbers game, a matter of getting qualified women into non-traditional fields where their skills and commitment would eventually propel them to the top.

Thirty-odd years later, I wonder how much has changed. Last week I joined four seasoned female leaders on a breakfast panel at the MaRS Centre about women and innovation. Between them, they had created pioneering websites, headed organizations, advised corporate leaders, taught MBA students and raised megabucks for launching new companies. All agreed that smart, imaginative women can energize a business. We’re ace multi-taskers, we’re more inclined than men to work collaboratively and we excel at making unlikely connections (what we’ve learned raising kids can serve us brilliantly with managing people). But has the age of equality arrived? Not yet, according to the panel. Women may be sitting in the boardroom, but big decisions are made in the men’s room, said author and consultant Lib Gibson, a veteran when it comes to boardroom politics. Her conclusion: “It’s not the glass ceiling–it’s the urinal wall!”

Senior women tell me over and over that they feel like interlopers in their board rooms. They steel themselves to go to work in office towers where young women look up to them as role models. Over a second glass of wine, they lament the mismatch between their own values and the kill-or-be-killed ethos that so often defines corporate life. The workplace was built by men for men, observes psychologist and workplace guru Barbara Moses, who interviewed many trail-blazing women for her book Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. One came up with this insight: “Men fight to win, women fight to survive.”

No wonder so many of us are deciding that it’s just not worth it. Senior American women are more than twice as likely as men to be thinking of quitting their jobs, writes economist and author Sylvia Hewlett in the Harvard Business Review. What they seek, by and large, isn’t time with kids but passion and challenge—the rewards we expected to find in the workplace. That’s a change more profound than I envisioned as I rode the subway to the office in my first navy blue suit.

Click here for my post on Hillary Clinton, the most compelling example I know of a qualified woman denied the job she sought by outdated assumptions about women.


Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.