Really. Stop. Polishing the glass ceiling is insidious because we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It happens when we ask a question, ask for permission, look for validation or apologize for taking a risk.
I did it this morning with my own 25 year old son, Ken. I’m walking in the yard when I notice that the drainpipe for the downspout is running up a rise in the lawn instead of down. And I ask Ken “Isn’t it better for this to be running down instead of up so gravity can work.” He responds with “This works…” and a perfectly legitimate explanation.
Which is not the problem. The problem is – why did I ask him in the first place? Do I need permission or validation? Seriously. This is my house. I can move the dad gum drainpipe without asking anybody.
I call this behavior polishing the glass ceiling – asking for permission to do something I can give myself permission to do.
C’mon. Be straight with me. I’m not the only one who does this, right? Most of us of the female persuasion do this – we don’t make a move without permission or validation.
Back in the day
I’ll never forget when Bo and I bought this house over 30 years ago – a short 3 months after we got married. It was love at first sight. We walked in and put a cash contract on it 30 minutes later. The whole thing was perfect – a pasture for the horse he’d always promised Suzanne (who was 12 at the time), a creek, a huge yards, front and back porches. And, the door to the back screened-in porch that opened into the great room, blocking access to the kitchen. Cute story: When Ken was a baby, he named it the tractor (pronounced track-too) porch because Bo parked the tractor under it.
26 year old me asked about flipping the door to the porch so it would open onto the porch and not block the major traffic path for the house. My question was greeted with a roll of the eyes and “Why would we do that?” As in, what a silly idea.
I took that lesson to heart, because for the next 29 years I continued to ask for permission to do things in my own house. Now, I’m not blaming Bo for all of this. I was highly socialized in this behavior because, well, I’m a girl and I was trained to ask for permission and avoid risky behaviors. In the process, I learned to not trust myself.
My dirty little secret
I don’t think Bo wanted me to ask for permission to do things. His reactions were supposed to provoke me into not asking and just doing things – into exercising agency. Instead, they kept me locked into the permission-seeking cycle.
How do I know he wanted me to learn agency? In the late 80’s, we started a software company, Comport Systems. Bo asked me to be the product manager in charge of getting the product running and ready to deliver to customers. He ensured my success by recruiting supportive places for me to work with experts who showed me how to do the things I didn’t know how to do. He was offering me agency over my career. And I took it.
But I didn’t know what to do with it. I was always scared of the possibility of making a huge mistake that would crater our business. I didn’t know how to trust my own judgment.
Strategic plans and butcher paper
I now realize that in 1988 I came to a seminal moment in my career. I flew to DC on Eastern Airlines (talking about back in the day!) to work with an accomplished, proven strategic planner, Tina. Tina understood software, sales, and business development. I understood project management, deliverables, and sales and needed help laying out a plan to deliver a functional product to market.
We worked for 2½ days, writing plans on big sheets of butcher paper and taping them to the walls of her office (this was before portable computers, in the time of dial-up internet). We mapped out what it would take to deliver a ready-to-sell product that we could build a thriving business around. I was proud of our work. I found out that I knew more than I thought I did (ie, I could trust my judgment).
So I returned home to Atlanta and we did exactly the opposite of the plan. An investor showed up with some capital and said, focus on sales instead of product and we did. I never said a word or questioned a decision. I don’t even remember us going over the strategic plan with the investor. I acquiesced to the whole thing.
Did Bo ignore the plan on purpose? No. But it happened. And we failed big time – hugely, painfully. My stomach still drops when I think about it.
Wait. What happened?
The exact same thing that happens to women every day. We have a great idea, we develop a great implementation plan, and then we ask for permission or validation before we move forward. And what happens next? The guys around us (a) ignore it, (b) claim it as their own, or (c) talk right over us with their better plan.
And we say nothing. We don’t speak up. Neither do the other women in the room.
We acquiesce; we become complicit in what happens.
And in that moment, we are polishing that glass ceiling. Making it beautiful, with no chips or cracks, just shining there – keeping us firmly in place.
Stop polishing the glass ceiling
Obviously, I’m passionate about this subject. You might wonder what I’m doing about it. Well, this morning as I’m walking in my flip flops through the cold dewy grass back to the house, I get angry with myself. Loudly angry. Profanely angry.
Then I moved the darn drainpipe. And I ran up to my home office, grabbed my notebook and started writing this post. Because women – crazy, intelligent, savvy, strong women – I AM DONE ASKING FOR PERMISSION.
Look around your life at home and work. Do the guys who surround you ask for permission, or do they just jump in? Don’t most of the men you know follow the maxim of do it and apologize later? Permission never enters the equation.
What would happen if we did the same thing? What would happen if we quit settling for the status quo and spoke up? What would happen if I moved the drain? What would happen if I went ahead and flipped the door? What would happen if I had spoken up and said “We have a plan for how to move this company forward – let’s look at it?”
What would happen if we grabbed those projects and ran with them?
Chip away at it until it shatters
This would happen: Every time we step up; every time we say yes to something we’re not sure we can do; every time we refuse to settle for someone else’s limited vision of what success looks like, we put a chip in the glass ceiling.
And every time we step into our potential and refuse to settle for less, we add more chips and those chips turn into cracks. That glass ceiling becomes brittle and unstable. The cracks get bigger. And then it shatters.
In 2012, Bo asked me, “Why don’t we flip the doors to the porch? It’s so awkward to navigate around them when we they’re open.” I detonated – the atomic bomb has nothing on the way I exploded. And he didn’t even remember our conversation 29 years earlier. He didn’t remember shutting me down and leaving me feeling foolish.
So, in the summer of 2013, 6 months after Bo died, just before I hosted family reunion for 60 people, I had a contractor flip the darn door. And it was heavenly. Foot traffic flowed without impediment, I can leave the doors open when it’s nice outside – and I can still get in the kitchen.
Practice makes permanent
I adjusted the drain, I write ads, I market my business, I write my blog, I create new programs. And I don’t ask for permission.
I work hard to shut down the voices in my head that tell me to ask for permission or validation. It takes practice and practice makes permanent. I’m going for permanent.
Ladies. Flip the door. Do the project. Speak up when you’re ignored, then do it again. And again. And again.
Shatter that glass ceiling, one chip at a time.