My Experience with the Glass Escalator

Many people are intimately familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling – it’s a phenomenon that occurs when women are in roles traditionally occupied by men, where they find an invisible barrier between themselves and those top-level executive positions.  (So, we’re talking about not only CEOs, but doctors, attorneys, principals/school administration, finance experts, etc.)  Very few people, it seems, are familiar with the “glass escalator”.

The glass escalator is the situation opposite from the glass ceiling: it’s what tends to happen when men enter a job role that is traditionally female.  We find this effect in areas like nursing, teaching, and non-attorney legal professional staff.  The glass escalator is similar to the glass ceiling in that it attempts to define inequality in the workplace, specifically regarding women; it’s dissimilar in that the odd gender out (in this case, men) are getting more advantages, not fewer.  In the glass escalator effect, men get more opportunities, are paid better, and get promoted faster, leaving the women behind. This is why in so many professions that are traditionally feminine, men tend to have more of the senior or managerial positions.  There are a number of books and articles out there that describe the glass escalator in more detail, although it’s not getting nearly the attention that the glass ceiling gets.

My own experience seems pretty typical when looking at the available information.  I work in the corporate legal industry as non-attorney support staff.  Fairly recently I got accepted into one of the two support staff seats on the Council for Diversity and Inclusion, and it was only then that I started to take a long, scrutinizing look at the actual diversity of employees in roles like mine.  At the support staff networking events, I made a note of who was attending.  When responding to the assistant (or support staff performing assistant duties) of executives in my department, I glanced at the name and profile picture of the person I was coordinating with.  And every time, I made the same observation: my company’s legal department below the level of attorney was almost exclusively Caucasian women.  There were a few (white) men, scattered here and there, and a few minority ladies, but the overwhelming majority were white chicks.  What’s more, every man that I knew in the department was getting promoted, while many women struggled to find ways to move up the ladder.  The legal department is frequently described as “flat”, meaning opportunities for upward mobility are few and far between with little reward for the effort, but even so, the men I knew were finding those hidden rungs on the ladder and gliding past the rest of us (like they were riding an escalator; get it?)

None of this is to say that the boys are super lazy, or that the girls aren’t (nor vice versa).  It’s to say that the men and women in my department are not only held to different standards, but pre-judged about their competency based on their genders.  And this combination holds women back while propelling men forward.

How do I fight this?  The project of dealing with a lack of support staff engagement is supposed to be my baby, but I’ve had trouble identifying where to even begin.  For starters, management at my company wants quick, easy results.  Anything I propose that might take a while, or that might end up being a beast of an undertaking, quickly gets shot down – and I HAVE pitched some pretty big ideas, like reforming the structure of the support staff so that we look less like a giant, segmented law firm, and adjusting the descriptions of all of the support staff job positions in legal so that they correspond more closely to what’s going on in the rest of the company (hell, I even suggested just changing the job titles and nothing else to try and gender-neutralize the jobs available and thus attract more men into the roles).  Nothing doing.  Everything has been dismissed.  The only thing that I’ve been allowed to move forward on is figuring out how to build better relationships between the attorneys and the support staff, so that support staff don’t seem as disinterested and the attorneys don’t seem so condescending (like THAT’S not a long-term goal.  No offense to the attorneys out there, individually you’re lovely people but as a group you can be a little hard to deal with.).  The glass escalator is something that I’m going to have to keep bringing up over and over in order to get people to pay attention; but once they ARE paying attention, I’m not sure how to fix the problem.  How do you go from less than 10% gender parity to about 50%?

How do we fix it?  I’m really asking.  Comment below and let me know if you’ve had similar experiences at your job, or if you have ANY ideas that I can try!  (Additionally, please let me know if you’d like me to recommend other sources; a bunch of academic papers can be located on JSTOR, but a regular Google search will also yield pretty relevant results.)


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