If glass ceilings existed, they would allow people to see through to the world above them. Because glass is clear, those existing under such a ceiling might not, at first, even notice that a barrier was in place which separated them from higher levels. Yet if they tried to pass through, they would quickly learn that the ceiling prevented any such rise.
This analogy has been offered by some people to describe the alleged condition which is supposed to keep women and minorities from achieving any but token positions at the highest echelons of corporate America. Most individuals concerned with this problem cite it as evidence of discrimination; a situation which therefore should be corrected by an application of affirmative action laws.
Yet even if what such advocates of "equality" claimed about glass ceilings were true, they would not be justified in using immoral means to achieve a purportedly positive end.
Like some magical object in a fantasy novel, the idea of "affirmative action" has shape-shifted with chameleon-like facility over the past three decades. At first, the goal sought was equality under the law. This is the first and only legitimate use of this concept in a society founded upon justice, that is, the idea that the law should not take cognizance of someone's race, sex, color, etc., but should instead apply equally and impartially to all. Such a legal environment is built on the understanding that ethics and rights are based upon the individual; that a person is responsible only for the actions and subsequent effects which he personally initiates.
That admirable goal was, unfortunately, cast in clay rather than stone. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, "affirmative action" melted from a recognition of equality under the law to a desire for equality of opportunity. Even when the Federal government acceded to this transformation by enacting new regulations and laws, the champions of affirmative action remained dissatisfied.
With a malleability reminiscent of the reversal of meaning "liberalism" has undergone since the Nineteenth Century, "affirmative action" came to mean equality of results regardless of the objective reasons for any disparities in the economic conditions of our nation's citizens.
The latest twist on this verbal sleight-of-hand comes in the form of the previously mentioned "glass ceiling." Some feminists state that this "under-representation" of women at the most rarified heights of business is a result of conscious decisions and overt anti-women prejudice on the part of company CEO's, presidents, and boards of directors.
Other, somewhat more generous critics see the dearth of female business leaders as an inexorable result of subconscious prejudice: the psychological and cultural fallout of years of male domination in our society. In either case, once again the Siren call for Federal intervention to "correct" such "inequities" echoes across the political landscape.
Two points need to be made in regard to this situation.
The first fact is that to become the CEO or president of a major corporation means forsaking -- or at least subordinating -- nearly all other aspects of life to one's career. Such a level of responsibility along with its attendant financial success requires putting in seventy- or eighty-hour weeks; demands one's almost complete submersion in and dedication to overseeing both the short-term and long-run needs of the business one manages; and results in the loss of time available to spend with family or in recreation.
The desirability of such a goal is not relevant in the current context. What is necessary to recognize is the fact that in our society, more men than women -- for whatever reasons -- are willing to commit themselves to the course of action demanded by such a rigorous goal. Even if there were no prejudice against women in business, the disparate numbers in the pools of available male and female candidates actively striving for this end would lead to a male/female ratio in line with that observed today.
As an example of this general process, consider the health field. In health care, nursing is almost exclusively the province of women and one which is relatively well-paid. Nurses in a large hospital in Iowa, for instance, can earn $25-40,000 a year. Yet many of the nurses I know voluntarily seek and accept only part-time positions. Some of these women want to spend more time watching their children grow; they don't want to miss those early years of rapid change. Others simply prefer more free time to engage in activities they enjoy. In most such cases, the husband works full-time.
In any event, the rejection by these nurses of the full-time careers available to them or of the graduate level education necessary for administrative careers results in a lower average wage for all nurses...and, more indirectly, for women in general. Yet this effect is a consequence of voluntary choices, not prejudice.
Likewise, many women forsake high-powered business careers in favor of the less tangible rewards of greater flexibility in work schedules; of more time invested in the raising of a family; and of wider opportunities for non-monetary personal development.
Overall, women work fewer hours than men; have less job experience and work fewer years; and avoid work in risky or unpleasant jobs which tend to be more highly compensated. Also, marriage and children tend to depress earnings for women when compared to men or single females. Unfortunately, some feminists prefer to focus solely on the issue of wages and promotions as measures of how much society values women. They have no incentive to impute economic importance to a homemaking career. To do so would undermine their case for widespread discrimination. But while material goods are necessary and desirable, they are by no means the sole standard we should use in judging someone's worth.
Even for many women who do devote their full attention to career issues, many fail adequately to understand how much of the corporate world works. Advancement in the business world frequently is based upon principles most men subconsciously learn as they grow up. It operates in ways emulating team sports and the military chain-of-command. Women who fail to understand the importance of office politics, going through the proper channels, and being able to make decisions quickly put themselves at an automatic disadvantage. Corporate life is a game which is not always fair: for men or women. Being able to take risks without making waves, being a team player who can operate independently when necessary, and participating in after-hours activities may not set well with some women, but for the present, the reality of the situation needs to be acknowledged if it is ever to change.
Despite any barriers of prejudice remaining in business and elsewhere, there is no need to invoke conscious (or subconscious) male-led conspiracies designed to deny women opportunities for achievement. Whatever the objective merits or shortcomings of the different goals selected by men and women, the reality of those differences provides a sufficient explanation for most situations. Businesses which continue to hire only males for top level positions out of a desire to maintain a "good old boys" environment will -- in a free society -- eventually find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with rivals who promote more competent, "underpaid" females to do the same kind of work.
The second point to be made on this issue is that all the (invalid) derivative permutations of "affirmative action" and "equality" entail violations of property rights. Even if an employer is overtly racist or sexist, there is no ethical justification for governmental intervention in his business decisions. If someone wants to serve only black people or hire only young women on the basis of their looks, that is his or her perogative and right (even if that action is, itself, actually distasteful and unethical). The function of government is not to ensure virtue but to ensure that no one's rights are violated.
No "right" exists to a job or a product or a service except for those economic goods which one has earned and obtained in a mutually satisfactory, voluntary interaction. Any other course involving the coercive powers of the State threatens not only the freedom of the business operators but, ultimately, the freedom of those who would seek redress of "unfairness" by calling on the State to commit injustices of its own.
The proper avenue for victims of prejudice is to respect the very rights which protect them: to seek change by persuasion, education, and argument (including boycotts); by working harder and producing more than those who do discriminate against them; and by utilizing only nonviolent means to their noble ends. Better yet, they can create their own businesses where women seeking executive positions are welcomed, not rejected. They need to realize that the initiation of force is always wrong. The constructive power of demonstrating merit will -- in the long run and despite personal prejudice -- win out over the destructive actions of discrimination. Left to itself, evil is powerless to achieve anything beyond its own demise. It grows stronger only when those well-intentioned souls who oppose it adopt those same immoral means practiced by their enemy.
Those who complain about glass ceilings should keep in mind that glass can be shattered if one strikes it hard enough and long enough...
Since this is one of my most accessed articles, I thought I would include some links to other articles and searches I have provided to various correspondents.
Larry Elder's book, The Ten Things You Can't Say in America, 2000, has a chapter, "The Glass Ceiling -- Full of Holes," pp., 133 -153, with references.
There's a page on this topic in a book by Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism?, 1994, p. 241.
Also, a short bit in Joan Kennedy Taylor's, Reclaiming the Mainstream, 1992.
Finally, there's a section on "Women and Work" (4 essays by various authors) in Freedom, Feminism, and the State, ed. by Wendy McElroy, 1991.
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