What glass ceiling?

Abstract: Let’s discuss why the glass ceiling isn’t…

Every time a social commentator or political activist bleats about the ever present ‘glass ceiling’ hanging in the way of the advancement of women in senior management positions, I want to grab them by the ear and drag them off to the closest magazine stand. It is there where they will find the real culprit – splashed all over those glossy covers.

The term ‘glass ceiling’ dates back to the corporate America of the early 80s. It only really became a ‘legitimised’ buzzword when it appeared in a March 1986 edition of the Wall Street Journal. Since then it has earned its colours as a rallying flag for feminists and equal rights campaigners. It’s just a pity that their passion is blinding them to the real problem – the women themselves. They have no real interest to break through that ceiling.

That there are more men than women in senior levels of business is undeniable; that the imbalance is a result of sexual discrimination is a little too simplistic. There is a myriad of other reasons, such as the oft-offered expectation of women, by society in general and by women themselves in particular, that they rather spend time raising children than concerns in the boardroom. But there’s a deeper, more insidious problem, and it sits in the minds of women.

If I ever wanted to negotiate the convoluted twist and turns of the female psyche I would find no more valuable a resource than women’s magazines. In fact, when I was still a broadcaster I was given copies of leading women’s magazines and instructed to study them to try and understand my female audience (as if a man could even understand women!). So I feel somewhat qualified to say the following: women’s magazines are full of fluff.

Let’s face it, if you were to glance at the covers of most women’s magazines, you’d notice that women seem to concern themselves with the following: looking younger, ‘finding’ themselves, staying healthy, raising successful children, building relationships with their friends and partners, decorating their homes, and, very occasionally, sex. They just don’t seem at all fascinated with the rigours of big business.

In fact, so similar is the offering presented by all women’s magazines, I swear they all subscribe to the same on-line tagline generator: ‘Look younger for longer’, ‘Say goodbye to cellulite’, ‘Best friends – it’s all about trust’, ‘Teething troubles a thing of the past’, ’12 Steps to a better YOU’, and, a little too infrequently, ‘Steamy bedroom secrets’.

There never seems to be any focus on the demands of corporate life. Where’s the tagline ‘Crush his nuts – when a colleague gets in your way’, or ‘The hostile takeover – making it work for you’? How are women supposed to infuse a sense of corporate identity into their souls if they’re more interested in tracking their intake of organic veggies or rating shades of eyeliner?

Women’s magazines also have a horrible habit of tapping into, and being inspired by, that netherworld of all things plastic and vacuous: the celebrity lifestyle. Readers of these magazines are encouraged to dress like Sandra Bullock, eat like Gwyneth Paltrow and cook like Martha Stewart. Where are the real heroines of big business? Women’s magazines are more likely to court the histrionics of the senseless Naomi Campbell than the insights of the inspirational Dr Mamphela Ramphele.

And then there’s the predilection in women’s magazines for all things flaky and pseudo-scientific, like horoscopes, chakras, biorhythms and homoeopathy. The harsh reality is that the savage thrust and parry of corporate affairs is not shaped by the shifting masses of gasses scattered around the cosmos millions of light years away. Neither can any measure of leverage in strategic negotiations be secured by searching for the other party’s colour aura. Also, I doubt if strike action at a mine could be averted by using feng shui to align the office’s pot plants.

I am of course going to be accused of gross generalisation, even misogyny; but the proof is in the reading. This week I examined the main cover stories of 20 leading women’s magazines. With an average of five stories per cover, only three stories in a hundred pertained to corporate business.

I’d like to think that women’s magazines underrate women. But if individual magazines are indeed to be believed and they really do represent the interests of their readers, then, collectively, they tell us that South African women are not really interested in big business. If this is the case, then if there is a ceiling in the corporate world above which women are hard to find, it’s not glass. It’s been decorated a shimmering shade of pink, with a delicate lace trim and it smells of avocado oil; and women are more than happy to potter around beneath it.

Originally published in The Sunday Tribune, 8 August 2010