This story has made look around and have a good think about life. A friend of mine from when I was at University visited me this weekend. I have not been well and she is relocating to Ghana, so we had a lot of catching up to do. It was lovely to see her, as it had been a while. It was not what she said that shocked me but what she experienced. What started as girl talk ended up giving me the chance to look at her experiences from my perspective support by research done by others and wonders what goes on in organisations. My friend who will be unnamed, like me did her Masters at Oxford Brookes University. I finished in 2007 and my friend in 2008. However her story is one faced by many BME women in the workplace. The unfortunate thing is, sometimes it’s difficult to prove and anywhere further other than leave the organisation. Most forms of discrimination now are so subtle that recipients don’t always know what to do and some people do take advantage of that.
It was 1984 when the ‘glass ceiling’ was first coined as a metaphor to describe gender inequality in upper management (Ryan, 2009). The phrase captures a phenomenon whereby women aspiring a top management position find themselves blocked from these positions by seemingly invisible(hence the glass), yet very real barriers(hence the ceiling) that serve to keep the upper echelons of leadership a predominantly white male domain. One thing that people might forget is the role of race in all this. Let’s face it, BME and white women will never have the same privilege in the workplace, yes you heard me- no good pretending we all start at the same point. Some definitely start far ahead because of their ethnicity, class and even where they studied. So on finishing our Master’s degree my friend and I were not only facing a glass ceiling but a concrete ceiling instead. You might be wondering where I am going with this but just wait.
"Concrete ceiling" not only restricts access to top-level positions but middle management positions. It is denser and not as easily shattered and research shows that while glass ceiling is about women in general, concrete ceilings seem to affect women of colour more as they have to deal with race discrimination on top of gender.
This story is about glass cliffs and BME women. My friend’s story got even more shocking because of her experience.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that individuals who are seen as atypical in a given context attract more attention and are more easily singled out for criticism. My friend definitely faced a higher scrutiny and criticism in her organisation than her white colleagues.
On finishing her degree my friend found a job with an accounting firm. She was ecstatic. While some of us were still looking for work in our areas of expertise, she was done and we were all happy for her. However, she happened to be the only black woman there and all seemed OK to start with until a pattern developed. With the laws and everything, there didn’t seem to be a problem and why would she even think about that except people kept on saying,’ we never had a black person before’’. Things got worse. Whenever there were any complicated projects or tough tasks/clients, they were given to her. To make it worse some of the stuff was not of a junior member like her but for a more experienced person. She would struggle with the projects on her own without support and many times with mixed results. New people joined the organisation and would be given what seemed to her the type of work in line with her qualifications, knowledge and skills. These people would go on to do well and move on to more senior positions. Let’s face it, seniority means more money and power, we all can do with a bit of that from time to time. And who wouldn’t be troubled to see others being promoted while they are stuck. Like many BME women who may have experienced the 'glass cliff' and didn’t think anything of it, she didn’t realise that she was being set up for failure by management. Yes, being given precarious projects and often found herself being called in for a chat on her performance by the very top members of the organisation. Whenever anything less challenging came about, it went on to other members of the team who then went on to being promoted.
So all they were doing was making my friend feel like a failure and also finding an excuse for not promoting her. This went on for the eight years she was with this organisation.
When my friend finally decided to ask her manager why she was always given tough projects and not getting help and support, she was told she needed to work harder and produce results.
One senior member of the management said to her, ‘for a black woman you are doing well. Some people like you are still out there looking for work and here you are complaining.’
That was it for my dear friend. She resigned and is now going back to Ghana.
I was so angry I needed to write this short story but this happens to many people and to me as well before I knew that research has been done on ‘glass cliffs’. Remember ‘glass cliffs’ also happens with women in general who can be put in a similar situation in a male dominated environment.