Marilyn Loden Coined Term ‘Glass Ceiling,’ Died Before Seeing It Gone

You’ve likely heard the term ‘glass ceiling,’ but do you know where it came from? More specifically, who?

Marilyn Loden was an activist and author who was credited with inventing the phrase now commonly used to describe gender disparities within the workplace. 44 years after Loden first noted the streaky smudges across this invisible barrier, women and minority groups are still pounding on those stubborn panes. After a decades-long career of fighting for gender equality, Loden passed away last month (August 6, 2022) after a battle with lung cancer. 

Though she first coined the term in the 1970s, Loden would later tell the Washington Post in 2018 that she thought the phenomenon would have been over in her lifetime. But years later, we still have a long way to go.

The Spontaneous ‘Glass Ceiling’ Discovery

Marilyn Loden
(New Hyde Park Memorial High School, 1964; Napa Valley Register)

While working in AT&T’s HR department in 1978, Loden appeared on a panel at the Women’s Action Alliance Conference in New York City. Gloria Steinem, Brenda Feigen Fasteau, and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes founded the Women’s Action Alliance (WAA) in 1971. The feminist organization was active until 1997.

The panel at this particular conference discussed women’s roles in their career stagnation, which Loden struggled to sit through silently. So, she didn’t. Off the cuff, Loden argued that “the ‘invisible glass ceiling,’ the barriers to advancement that were cultural, not personal, were doing the bulk of the damage,” Loden wrote in a 2017 BBC article

Loden would later expand on these thoughts in her 1985 book, Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys. The book encouraged women to draw on their strengths rather than changing themselves to fit into a male-centric landscape.

As Loden continued her career in gender advocacy, she continued to pen books promoting diversity in the workplace. In 1990, she published Workforce America!: Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource, which outlined how to recognize and rectify problems that inhibit the full participation of a diverse workforce.

Then, in August 1995, Loden releasedImplementing Diversity, which dove further into how, exactly, to implement these organizational tactics. Major corporations, including Citibank, NASA, Proctor & Gamble, and Shell Oil, hired Loden to help diversify and train their workforce with the techniques outlined in her books. 

In addition to her partnerships with major corporations, Loden worked with US Navy to increase gender equality in its policies and practice. Her efforts increased leader accountability for sexual harassment and lifted the ban prohibiting women sailors from submarine service. The US Navy awarded Loden the civilian Superior Service Medal in 2016 for her work.

Marilyn Loden speaking at US Navy event
(US Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

RELATED: NASA Scientists Found Women Would Be Better Astronauts, But Their Findings Were Never Published

We’ve Made Some Progress (But Not Enough)

Loden’s legacy made it to Capitol Hill in 1991 when Congress created the Glass Ceiling Commission. The commission studied the “barriers of attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions.” 

These studies took place from 1991 to 1996 and included racial disparities in the labor market. Nearly 30 years later, the improvements are marginal at best. Women CEOS in America reported that “while the numbers for women in leadership are moving in the right direction, 8.2% in the Fortune 500 up from 6.6% in 2019, progress is still too slow and not reflective of the nation.”

According to the Pew Research Center, women earned 84% of what men earned in 2020. “Based on this estimate,” the center wrote, “it would take an extra 42 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2020.” The gender pay gap amounting to over a month of extra work is shocking—but it’s nothing compared to the racial pay gap. 

Women CEOs included in their study, “women of color hold just one percent overall of [Fortune 500 leadership] positions.” The US Bureau of Labor Statistics also found that in 2020, the typical full-time Black worker earned 20% less than a typical full-time white worker. 

Specifically, the Bureau found that the median earnings for Black men in 2019 amounted to only 56 cents for every dollar earned by white men. That’s a wider pay gap than in 1970, a mere six years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Loden’s Past Insight Reveals About Today

Loden’s obituary wrote that she “was saddened to know [the glass ceiling] would outlive her,” similar to the sentiments she echoed in her 2018 interview with the Washington Post.” Indeed, the fight against the glass ceiling was nowhere near finished that year—or in the years following it. 

The divide between genders and races only deepened in Loden’s final years as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened these disparities further. Still, Loden didn’t let this stop her. Even in her final months, she worked with employees of her hometown hospital, St. Helena Hospital, to help them form a union. 

While the glass ceiling might not have been shattered completely in Loden’s lifetime, she did some serious damage to its finish. It’s our turn to take up Loden’s cause—and metaphorical hammer—and start smashing away at this invisible barrier ourselves. 

Loden told the Post, “I’m hoping if [the glass ceiling] outlives me, it will become an antiquated phrase. People will say, ‘there was a time when there was a glass ceiling.’” And with enough perseverance and determination, hopefully, we can reach that point of antiquity sooner rather than later.

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