Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Glass Ceiling Experiment

From :
There's still that glass ceiling and a double standard. Old stereotypes and old expectations still exist. It's not fair. It's so outdated, but is still exists in a culture that remains predominantly patriarchal. The only way for it to go away is to chip at it over time.

She should know.

Most men don't really believe the extent of the Glass Ceiling. Oh sure, things were bad in the past, and they're not perfect now, but it's no big deal.

Well, that's what I used to think prior to 2005, based on the evidence I could see with my own eyes. Talking with other women though, they saw things differently. I was the only male colleague they felt they could open up to, like they could a woman, and so I was troubled by some of the things they told me, how they were treated. This was especially the case in Germany.

To determine the extent of the problem though, you'd really have to set up an experiment. Have the same person, not merely opposite-sexed identical twins, but someone with the same CV and basic personality, appear serially as a man, and a woman, and see what happens. How they're treated in the employment market and workplace.

The article at describes a situation pretty close to that. It's in complete accord with my own limited experience too.

During my transition, I was lucky enough to be contracted to a very unusual firm. Software Improvements, a bunch of very impressive engineers.
Our unofficial company motto - No Problem Too Strange - shows that our Engineers relish tackling the technical challenges that no-one else has ever attempted before. And our record of achievement shows we're good at it.
Electronic Voting, Spaceflight, Naval Combat Systems, Systems Engineering Tools, Laser Therapeutic Devices, Avionics... they do all that. Stuff that often has to work fist time, every time, or Bad Stuff™ happens. People going blind. People dying.

They even coped with one of their number rapidly changing sex before their eyes. My contract was extended and extended again, until my work was complete. That really is outside the realms of the experiment, and I was in no position to take notes anyway. I don't think that either the company culture, or any of the employees, could be bigoted if they tried. Heck, I was always the token Rightie, and still accepted. They were, and are... atypical. Unique even. High Geniusses all.

After that, it was 5 months before I started my PhD. I dabbled a little in the employment market, but not heavily. I just wanted a short-term contract for a few months. Most positions advertised as that had the expectation that if things worked out, it would extend, and probably lead to a permanent role. Besides which, if I didn't get an offer, I never knew if it was because I was obviously TS or not. Since then, I've been in the Great Sheltered Workshop that is Academia, and so again, I've been more an observer than a participant.

I remember one phone interview though. It was like the old joke about the 5 whites and the black who were being considered for membership in a Bible Study group.

The first white was asked which Biblical Character lost his strength when his hair was cut.
"Samson" he said. The interviewer said "You're in".
The second white was asked what weapon he used.
"The Jawbone of an Ass" he said. "You're in".
The third white was asked "Who were his enemies?"
"The Philistines" he said. "You're in too."
The fourth white was asked "How many did he kill?"
"Ten thousand" he replied. "So are you."
The Black was asked "What were their names?"

I was prepared to answer questions about my extensive experience with UML, especially x/tUML. The first question though was "what are the first names of the Three Amigos. (Grady Booch, James Rumbaugh, and Ivar Jacobson BTW).

Now I'd had a good talk with Stephen Mellor just a few months previously, and had some correspondence in the past with Grady Booch when he was formulating and formalising his ideas. But Rumbaugh and Jacobsen's first names escaped me, that was historical stuff, I wasn't taught it, I helped make it!

There was no second question, and I was roundly ticked off for being a "useless female" just wasting his time.

Lisa Kansas has two good articles on how it is to be the only female engineer in a mid-sized company, and I suggest you read both of them. Plus my own comments.

I've looked at Life
From Both sides now...


RadarGrrl said...

Could be much worse. I've seen two cases where employers actively tried to drive someone to quit their position, if not something worse. In one case, upper echelons came to their senses and did something about it. In the other, the hapless individual finds herself unemployed and forced to move. In both cases, harassment policies were and are in effect, but were circumvented. It doesn't matter who you are, if a given employer wants to get rid of you, they will find a way.

spatiallydiffusedbudgie said...

I have been asked whether I was prepared to get my hands dirty for an engineering position that involved testing on mine sites. They also asked if I was ok working outdoors.

Being the only female applicant for that engineering position in Perth, I feel comfortable in guessing I was the only applicant asked those questions.

I have now decided to give up on engineering and retrain as something else. Strangely, this seems to happen to many female engineers in our 30s. Worryingly, the professional body can't figure out why.

Anonymous said...

Because I am heading in the opposite direction, I'm curious to see how my career pans out in the long term - especially because I am considering a career change from male-dominated IT to female-dominated Sociology in the next few years.

When I started at UC we did ITIL v3 certifications in my very first week. I scored the highest mark in the exam, tying for the place with my supervisor.
I was the youngest person sitting the exam, and 1 of 4 'women' (not being out at the time). This made everyone exclaim over how exceptional it was.
I sometimes wonder if they would have exclaimed so much if I had started UC as male.

Lloyd Flack said...

How much of this is employers feeling that they can more easily overwork men? That because of upbringing men can more easily be pressured to give up too much for the job.

To the extent that this is true, getting rid of the glass ceiling requires drying up the supply of men who are too submissive to a hierarchical organization's goals. Which requires encouraging men to to be aware of the aspects of male sex roles that are exploitation and to be pissed off about them. You wont't get change any other way. Trying to use guilt won't help and ultimately backfires.

The fact is that men are regarded as expendible and are brought up to develop a taste for ego bribes so they will accept this.

This is not an attempt to deny the lack of respect and the stifling invoved in female sex roles. Or a suggestion that the matters I have brought up above are the whole story behind the glass ceiling.

Just that disadvantages one sex labours under can't be dealt with in comlete isolation from the disadvantages the other sex labours under. They interlock.