Shattering Ceilings

    Among the many areas for which I feel somewhat ill-qualified in guiding my students is when I attempt to push them into a business world which I’ve successfully shunned for most of my life. It isn’t that I don’t understand where they’re going. I get corporate America. I understand resumes and interviews. I know the rules of the game.

    It’s just that from my vantage point, the game often is not worth playing.

   broken glass ceiling And young women can be at a particular disadvantage. Even when they’re heading into PR and communications (no shock that my students would be of that ilk), fields well full of the fairer sex, they seem to face some pretty daunting hurdles. The most formidable barriers of which may be the gatekeepers themselves: other women.

    Last semester, when one of my students found herself in a back-and-forth volley of snippy emails with a would-be internship employer, I offered what I considered a commonsense approach. Apologize for missing the meeting and move on. In her defense, the girl was trying to fit an above-and-beyond internship into a full-course curriculum and a 25 mile commute. Car problems and finals week pushed her just over the edge. The woman answering her email mea culpa couldn’t be bothered.

    Was I missing something here? I must have been.

    So I asked a friend who has steadily climbed the business world ladder for the last 20+ years. She got it immediately. She painted a few scenarios. One –the woman had brought the girl onboard and the student’s missed meeting was already reflecting badly upon the woman. Two –she was threatened by a younger, perhaps better polished version of herself. And three, she was just a bitch.

    At the last of her offered explanations, I balked.

    I could hear the shoulder shrug through the telephone line. Regardless of any offense I might take at the stereotypical notion of what defines a successful businesswoman, she seemed to be saying -it was what it was. She implied that Meryl Streep had captured more than good comedy in The Devil Wears Prada; Meryl’s Miranda Priestly was, in fact, pretty representative of women-and-younger-women workforce relationships.

    My apparently naïve vision of an upturned hand offering guidance was slapped away pretty quickly in the world my friend sketched.

    “Girls suck,” she said.

    God, I hate that word. (okay, I get the hypocrisy –let’s not go there)

    And also I don’t believe it.

    Because if I did, I’d have to revisit every lesson I’ve passed along to my kids. I’d have to rethink my personal history. And I’d have to ignore some pretty powerful women in my own life, starting with my mom, my grandmothers and my aunts but enveloping also my cousins, my sister-in-law, my friends and my own supervisor at work.

    It isn’t that I haven’t seen the women to whom my friend refers. I know they’re out there. It’s just that what gets forgotten in all that condemnation and cut-throat imagery are the other women in our lives.

    So because I believe we are bountiful, here’s to the girls who’ve lent a hand, a shoulder, an ear.  The girls who’ve held ponytails after too much partying, wiped tears away after breakups, calmed one trembling hand with another. The girls who’ve offered high fives and fist bumps, but also honest assessments of our outfits, our weight, our boyfriends.

    I believe in all of us because I know that at the close of that horrible news telephone call, the one that usually follows is placed to another woman. And that the in-sickness-and-in-health vow may extend more befittingly to the woman who is bringing food and taxiing children, or sizing her friend for a wig before shuttling her to chemo. I know that at the end of a man’s betrayal, there is a woman pulling her friend from the wreckage of a broken marriage. And that at the depths of her self-esteem, it isn’t a man, but rather a woman telling her that she’s beautiful and worthy and loved. And when the kids are making her crazy, it’s another woman showing up at the doorstep with a bottle of wine and a contributing curse.

    Sure, it’s about venting and raging, but it’s also about crying and consoling. Sometimes its words, like “I’m sorry,” or “I get it,” and sometimes it’s complete silence, a hand on a knee, a hug. It’s reassurance and affirmation and pride. It’s simple understanding, or utter irreverence. It’s being there –good times and bad- in a way that supplants geographic location; it’s the kind of touch that transcends physical contact.

    Perhaps because I’ve been tested with bad times, I doubly believe in the good.  I’ve cried crippling tears of loss, but more often streaming tears of laughter. And sharing them both with me is always a woman.

    So if my young friend will trust it, I’ll continue to pass along my naiveté. Because for every woman shattering glass ceilings with disregard for raining debris and collateral damage, I’d like to believe there are at least as many pulling the littered shards from hair and clothes and leading with helping hands. My vision ignores the nasty emails and focuses instead on the one my student received which sincerely thanked her for joining the team, assured her that she’d always have a home in their workplace and signed it with Xs and Os. The email’s author is the type of woman I wish to be in her life –a woman who isn’t threatened or spiteful, but rather a guide up the ladder of a success that isn’t measured solely by titles and paychecks. And one who willingly passes along the feminist torch with a light that doesn’t burn, but rather bolsters and warms, instead.

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