There she was on one of many big screen TVs giving her speech. On the one next to her was a re-run of “The Bachelor” where women vie for the affections of the guy. Ahead of me in the front row of elliptic machines a young women had her head in a textbook of some sort and never looked up, not at her or “The Bachelor.”
But I did look up at her as I continued my aerobic circuit up and down hills. There she was Hillary Clinton, former first lady and currently senator from New York, telling her supporters to work for Obama and make sure there is a democrat in the White House. I thought, “Yes, please let’s move on.” I wasn’t feeling vitriolic or impatient with her. I was feeling displeasure and irritation with our system of long drawn-out primaries. I thought then and I believe now that everyone, in every state, should vote on the same primary day. Period. Then move on to the general election.
A tremor went through me when she said “We have put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.” Yes, I thought. We certainly have. Even out here in Silicon Valley there is a glass ceiling. But it will never be smashed. It will just keep heating up and melting away into new challenges. The process is already in action although for the women of my generation with business careers the glass ceiling has been a very tough opponent.
The glass ceiling has operated something like this for the woman who came of age in the sixties and seventies. If she was a negotiator who was willing to partake in give-and-take, she was either too conciliatory and not able to make the tough decisions. If she made the hard call, then she was too harsh and didn’t taken enough input. She was always suspect. She was never fully believable or trustworthy. And, it was not just men who were harsh critics. Her female rivals and reports could top any man. But, with smarts and forbearance she made it up the ladder just so far until it was time to put her in her place. There were many women directors, but not many vice presidents. Of course, a few made it all the way. Look, for example, at Meg Whitman or Carol Bartz. In 2006 The New York Times wrote about Ms Bartz’s stepping down from her CEO job by noting that she was a pioneer and still a rarity.
The women of other generations will tell their own story. But, for women of my generation perhaps we just tried too hard and cared too much. We didn’t have that naturalness about us that communicated that we just belonged where we were aiming. We didn’t have it because we didn’t get it at school or at home. We didn’t just fit in with the guys. We didn’t play sports and our teachers and mentors pushed us in directions very different from where they guided our male classmates. Our academic achievement wasn’t enough. So when we got into the business world we didn’t have all that practice behind us. Suddenly we were negotiating to join groups, learn rules, and be natural in a foreign world. And even though we learned fast, we couldn’t deny our sex. How many times were we the only woman in the room? Most of the time.
Then there were all the little things, like the voice, that were bigger than we realized. It’s hard to be comfortable with a high pitched voice or one that is strained. What would you rather listen to, a round tenor or a shrill soprano? I’ll take the tenor any day and so, probably, would you. A strained voice comes from trying too hard or being too tired or from just trying to be heard. I can’t count the number of times when at meetings the guys would just talk over my soft voice. Then when I would raise it, it sounded unnatural and shrill and they would glare. More than once during the exhausting months of the democratic primaries, I heard the same thing in Hillary’s voice. Strained and uneven, a bit shrill, and hoarse, I just couldn’t listen to it. I would catch myself admonishing her to get herself to a voice coach right away, please.
Even our wardrobes were against us. Remember the padded-shoulder-power-suits with the bow-at-the-neck blouses of the 1980s? I wore the suit but couldn’t bear to wear the blouse. I yearned for clothes from the 1960s like A-line dresses and tunic-topped pant suits. These were natural, modern clothes but they were nowhere to be seen. Now, I laugh when I realize that we women, like the guys, are wearing relaxed and casual clothes at work. And, when we have to don formal business attire, we do it naturally with style and ease. But clothes still get unequal attention. When Nancy Pelosi became speaker of the House and by right of office third in succession to the presidency, it was the clothes that demanded attention. Even the Columbia Journalism Review wrote about it in an article called “A Girl’s Got the Gavel! But What’s She Wearing.” The turning point for fashion equality will be when the guys get the same critical attention as the women. Are you ready Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama?
The important thing, though, is never to look back. Just keep moving ahead. That’s not to say that there is not plenty of wisdom to glean from women of my generation. There is and smart women in business and politics have learned from our successes and mistakes. But we must all keeping moving forward. In this election year, it means that we must get behind the issues and then go with the candidate most aligned with our most important ones. Make a short list and use it to guide your decision-making. I have mine: The economy, health care, and foreign policy and military action. You can find more on it here.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum