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Shattering the Glass Ceiling [PODCAST]

This year’s St. Louis University School of Law Public Law Review symposium will cover the topic of women in the workplace and the change needed for equality. Professor Marcia McCormick, director of the William C. Wefel Center for Employment Law, addresses inequalities, stereotypes and discrimination facing women today in advance of the “Shattering the Glass Ceiling” symposium

Corie: Welcome to SLU LAW Summations. I’m Corie Dugas. Today we are talking to Marcia McCormick.  Professor McCormick is the director of the Wefel Center for Employment Law at SLU LAW. She is joining us in advance of the Public Law Review Symposium to discuss women, discrimination and the law. Welcome to the show Marcia.

Marcia: Thanks.

Corie: The topic of this year’s symposium is shattering the glass ceiling. The concept of a glass ceiling was first coined in 1979 at a conference of the women’s institute for freedom of the press.  More than 36 years later we are still discussing that a glass ceiling exists. Marcia can you explain what the glass ceiling is and how it still applies today?

Marcia: So the glass ceiling is really a metaphor for the point in a person’s career where they stop advancing. Over time when you look at women in the aggregate, people notice that despite anti-discrimination laws, despite changing cultural views, women were only getting so far on the corporate ladder, for example.  They could see the presidency from where they were on the glass ceiling but they weren’t able to go any farther than a particular level.  And the glass ceiling has been applied not just to women, but also to people of color, African Americans, Hispanics, people of ethnic minorities that have been traditionally discriminated against.

Corie: So what are some of the stereotypes that you see out there that promote this idea of a glass ceiling? And how are they reinforcing this idea?

Marcia: We all know what stereotypes are in one sense. Women are naturally nurturing, that’s a stereotype. Men are naturally aggressive. But stereotypes like that actually operate on our thought processes in ways that we don’t expect.  It’s not just that I’m a decision maker, I’m deciding who I am going to hire to be a firefighter for example, and I think, this is a job that women just aren’t going to be very good at, so I will only hire men.  There are certainly some types of stereotypes that work that way and people who think that way.  But mostly what happens is that stereotypes actually change the way that people perceive the world around them or perceive the people around them.  So they remember things that didn’t happen.  They think things did happen that didn’t. They also ascribe reasons for things based on those stereotypes. For example, imagine you work in an office and you are a supervisor and you are holding a meeting and two of your employees are late to that meeting. One is a woman and one is a man. The woman walks in late, the supervisor is likely to assume she is late because of childcare issues because women are thought to be primarily focused on child care more so than work and tend to prioritize those things. That is part of the stereotype. We also tend to think that this going to happen frequently. That it is not transitory but it is something about the way the woman is; she is always going to prioritize childcare. Now it could be that she is late because of a traffic jam, but we just assume these things. The man walks in late. We don’t assume he was dropping of his kids. We don’t assume he is always going to make that choice, because we don’t assume that he is prioritizing care giving over the workplace.

Corie: So you are talking about how these stereotypes can really be barriers to what is going on and the perception of women in the workplace. What other barriers to career growth are women facing?

There are a number of barriers. Some of them are explicit kinds of barriers. Very few workplaces still prohibit, explicitly prohibit women in certain positions. The military is really sort of the last category that did that and even that is falling. The perception of whether women can be leaders, that is a barrier. Often women are just not accepted as leaders. When they are assertive they are seen as aggressive in a negative way. Other barriers, and this is kind of a fancy term, homosocial reproduction, it refers to how people replace themselves. We have a tendency when we are looking for someone to do the job we are leaving to pick someone who reminds us of ourselves. It’s very common to say oh, look at that person, they are just like me. I am going to give them the chance because they are going to be great at this. One of the things people use to identify each other is sex, and when you have a guy in that position and he is going to see a guy coming up the ranks and think, oh that guy should be in here and not think the same way about a woman. So that process is a barrier. Lack of social support for care giving. I know that I talked about that as a stereotype just a second ago, but it is true social fact and as an economic fact that women do often assume care giving roles for family, for children and for older people. The lack of social support for that, the lack of affordable child care, means that sometimes women have to take time away from the work force.  Gender role enforcement. We really do have a lot of labor force segregation on the basis of sex. There are pink collar jobs that are dominated by women and other industries that are dominated by men. And finally some working environments are hostile to women. Some of the  most well-known are Wall Street for example, other kinds of male dominated workplaces like oil rigs, fire stations, public safety kinds of jobs. Those are very male dominated and they can often be quite hostile to women.

Marcia: If find this concept you brought up a little bit ago about how you plan succession based on people that you see that are really similar to what you are doing. So how can women that have hit this top line that they can go to where other women are already in place, how can they reach about that and have people above them see them as people that can move into that position?

That is really hard. I will confess that I am a little bit leery of that approach in part because on the one hand we do want to give advice to women and we as women want to feel like we have the power to succeed and if we just work harder or smarter we will get there. But focusing on women in that question and what they can do suggests that they really are in control when maybe they are not.  So for example, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was so popular over the last few years, but it was also controversial because when women do lean in, they suffer penalties.  Women try to negotiate.  That is seen as illegitimate. And they are penalized for trying to do what they are told they are supposed to.  Ultimately, I think to some extent what women need to do is start their own companies and be aware of the way they incorporate some of these same biases about women’s competence and think very clearly about promoting and supporting other women. I think there are political things that women can do band together and try and create better social support for each other.  But in terms of some special thing that a particular woman might do as she sees the CEO office that she is aiming for I think that is a much harder thing to try and figure out.

Corie: Absolutely and that makes perfect sense. One of the things that has been on the minds of people, especially in the state of Missouri is this issue of paid leave. So how has this issue of paid leave created gender issues in the workplace?

Marcia: I am going to be annoying again and switch that question.  I don’t think that paid leave has created gender issues in the workplace.  It is the lack of paid leave that creates gender issues in the workplace and perpetuates gender divisions of labor outside the workplace. So again, as a social matter, most caregiving in this country and in the world is done by women.  We are the primary care givers of children and aging parents and then the cost of that care if we weren’t providing it and the lack of paid leave pushes a lot of women out of the workforce, especially at the lower end of the economic spectrum and especially for women of color. When women have paid maternity leave they are actually much more likely to stay in the work force and to stay with the employer that gave it to them and they get farther in their careers. Paid leave given to both men and women for caregiving would allow more women to remain in the paid workforce, would shrink the amount of the gender pay gap, attributable to gaps in work history due to caregiving and would disrupt the gender division of labor as a cultural matter, which could also have a ripple effect of gender segregation in the labor force.

Corie: Wow, that’s a lot. What are the next steps to move this forward so that this inequity with paid leave can be solved?

Marcia: A number of states have started talking about this and the federal government has as well.  In fact there is federal legislation that has been proposed that models a paid leave program on the kinds of other wage insurance programs that exist out there. So we already have unemployment insurance for the time when people are unemployed to kind of tide them over until their next job. We have social security disability for the time when someone is disabled from working. And these proposals are to create sort of similar kind of fund or insurance program. You pay in a certain amount of your wages, a very small percentage and then when you have caregiving responsibilities the federal legislation says you could take up to 60 days per year and your salary or at least part of your salary would come out of that fund.  States are experimenting with a variety of similar kinds of things.

Corie: And this would be something that all employees contribute to and then anyone could use?

Marcia: Yes, and it would be gender neutral.  The Family and Medical Leave, which is the current federal statute that provides for caregiving leave, was the initial model.  The leave that it provides for is unpaid, but it was purposefully designed to be gender neutral and it was purposefully designed to limit who you could take care of so that men would have to sometimes take it as a way to try and disrupt the gendered nature of caregiving.

Corie: Are there any issues on what those specific requirements are and who you can and can’t take care of that still need to be solved?

Marcia: I think actually most of those have been taken care of, even in the last few years. One of the really interesting things about the Family and Medical Leave Act is that you can take leave to care for a parent, but not a parent-in-law. That actually is a good thing because it means that when an opposite sex couple is deciding who is going to take care of the husband’s mom, the woman can’t be the one to do it, even if she earns less, even if it would be more socially acceptable for her to do it. It encourages them, and actually supports them in making the decision for the husband to do it, to be the one to take time and care for his parent.

Corie: So by making this policy almost less inclusive it is actually beneficial when we look at the gender stereotypes?

Marcia: It is. Somebody from the family gets to care for another member of the family but the limit forces that decision to be made without regard to the gender of the partner.

Corie: Interesting. Is there any sort of legislation that you see on the horizon that addresses these issues of gender inequality?

Marcia: There are a number actually that fall into about seven different categories. The fact that they are there does not mean they are going to get passed. Our current Congress does not seem very interested on moving forward on these kinds of things. The Equal Rights Amendment has been proposed in Congress once again. It has been proposed since I think 1920 every year and was almost ratified and then not. That is an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. And then there are a number of pieces of legislation that are designed to try and get at the gender pay gap. In the aggregate men make substantially more than in the aggregate women do and once you get into racial distinctions it becomes even a larger gap.  And there are a number of those. A lot of those are focused on removing the barriers to talking about your salary. Currently the National Labor Relations Act probably employee rules that say you can’t talk about your salary but nobody knows that so these would explicitly do that. There are a lot of paid leave proposals, the Healthy Families Act. Schedules that Work Act focuses on being able to control your schedule and negotiate about it to create more flexibility. There are a number acts that focus on public health, Healthy Mom Act provides social support and leave once a woman discovers that she is pregnant and a lot more programs to try and get women in STEM.

Corie: We have discussed a lot about what is happening here in the US. So how do we compare to other industrialized nations when we are looking at these gender gaps?

Marcia: The Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Center for Work Life Law at UC Hastings College of Law ranked the United States last out of 20 industrialized countries, so we are not doing well and the gap is widening. They are progressing and we are falling backwards.

Corie: I really appreciate you being here today Marcia. I think that this is a really important topic that we have been discussing. On February 26, you along with several other scholars will be talking about this topic in even more detail. It’s been a pleasure talking with you today and thank you very much for being here.

Marcia: Thanks

© Copyright 2021National Law Review, Volume VI, Number 70
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About this Author

Marcia L. McCormick, Associate Professor at St. Louis University School of Law
Associate Professor

Professor Marcia L. McCormick joined the SLU LAW faculty as an associate professor in 2009. Her scholarship has explored the areas of employment and labor law, federal courts, as well as gender and the law. A prolific blogger, Prof. McCormick is a co-editor and contributor to the Workplace Prof Blog, which provides daily information on developments in the law of the workplace and scholarship about it.

Prof. McCormick earned her B.A. from Grinnell College and is an honors graduate of the University of Iowa School of Law. During law school, she...

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