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The Glass Ceiling Is Getting Thicker


I consider myself a refugee. You see, I once thought the glass ceiling didn’t exist.

At least, it didn’t anymore. How could it? There were different genders, races and religions at every level in American business. We were dealing with a labor shortage too so even if companies wanted to be picky, they couldn’t afford to do it. They needed skilled people at all levels and increasingly, those were coming outside of the once prototypical business person (white, male…you know, also known as me). Good thing too since I believe that competition is the essence of success.

Now I haven’t been too political on my blog but people that follow me closely probably think I lean conservative (of the freer market, smaller government variety). Luckily I have friends and colleagues who are all over the map. Living in Portland will do that to you.

So it surprised a couple people I know when I started arguing that the biggest impact that the recession will have is that the glass ceiling will not only still be there but it will be thicker then it has been in the past decade. It also surprised people in some of the HR circles I run so I absolutely had to post my argument.

Forget The Boomers And The Gen Y’ers

When layoff time comes, HR focuses on young versus old. I can understand it some, there are some pretty significant laws that protect older workers including the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and a crapload of other state laws to take into account too. Also, it seems that some are either celebrating that Gen Y will be brought down to Earth by layoffs or that they will succeed beyond all possible odds. Cue the Rocky soundtrack. Wait, that doesn’t really work for most of Gen Y.

Anyway, who cares about Gen Y? I speak to this point as a Gen Y’er. We’ll probably get cut at a disproportionate rate but most of us can afford to take the cut. With decades until retirement, no college aged children, very few of us with other commitments such as houses and deferments available on student loan balances, we’ll be fine.

Boomers will be protected by over-zealous HR departments who will always give a person 40 or over the edge in a department (instead of considering them as equals). And if they are wrongly termed, they have many more options and technicalities they can get judgments on than those under 40 can.

Race And Sex: This Isn’t NASCAR

Wait, NASCAR is sexy? That’s probably another topic…

When layoffs started hitting hard, a story was run about males being disproportionately impacted by layoffs. Glass ceiling deniers or apologists pointed and said “See! See!” The only problem, most of the positions men were losing positions at were blue collar manufacturing and construction jobs. Throw in s0me investment bankers too. Couple that with the fact that gains within the female population were typically in service related positions such as health care and you don’t have a great argument that the glass ceiling is gone.

Another one is that the election of Barack Obama is a sign that all is well and the glass ceiling is broken. Certainly Obama’s run has inspired millions of people and given them hope (excuse my co-opting of his campaign slogan). Unfortunately hope and inspiration doesn’t overcome some hard truths:

  • If you have a senior manager with 25 years of experience, I can bet money on the race and sex of that person. If Vegas had that as a game, they would be broke.
  • During layoffs, if it is a choice between the person with 10 years of experience and 25 years of experience, I can also bet on who is going to get laid off.
  • That person is going to find it much more difficult to find a job in this rough economy which means they might settle for a lower position.
  • That person with 5–10 years of experience is much more likely to be non-white and/or non-male then the person with 25 years of experience meaning it is still more difficult to move up.

Getting Over The White Male Guilt

Even if all conditions for all races and sexes are equal today (which isn’t probably the case), the fact that they haven’t been equal in the past and that inequity gap was wider in the past gives non-whites and non-males a distinct disadvantage. In a recession, those disadvantages become more apparent.

So what’s the solution? What’s the white guy going to do?

I don’t know the solution. I think many of the solutions (and lack of solutions) presented are problematic in their own right and that the only solution that has really worked consistently is time. Time for people to gain experience so there isn’t that gap in past experience. Time for people to accept others as well as some protection while we are still trying.

I’ve stopped being guilty about it though. The true need here is for recognition, understanding and ultimately action.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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