No, Sec. Hillary Clinton Did Not “Shatter the Glass Ceiling”

With the historic nomination of Sec. Clinton as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, making her the first woman ever nominated by a major party for the Country’s top office, there has been one phrase that has been almost inescapable this last week: “Hillary Clinton has shattered the glass ceiling.” When she appeared on a jumbo-tron at the Democratic National Convention, the beginning of her video entrance was marked digital effects showing the current screen shattering into shards of glass that fell out of view to the sound of a baseball bat being swung through a picture window to reveal the then future nominee’s face. In the wake of the Convention, especially after Sec. Clinton’s acceptance speech, news outlets from predictably sensationalizing (CNN, New York Times, and The Huffington Post) to the typically “just the facts” and social justice savvy (PBS, Politico, and Mother Jones) were churning out articles like “Breaking the Ultimate Glass Ceiling (CNN)” and “Glass Ceiling, Shattered: Watch Hillary Clinton’s Acceptance Speech (Mother Jones).”

Admittedly, it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the excitement. I’ve been a Sanders supporter all throughout the primaries and even before that, and while I harbor no hatred or intense ill-will toward the former Secretary of State, she is not my ideal candidate. However the history and immense power of the moment many of us witnessed in one way or another honestly has me down right joyful and excited. Especially because I know that if we don’t elect our Nation’s first woman President this election cycle, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to happen for quite a few elections to come. While of course anything is possible, and candidates can come out of nowhere, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is 67 years old so age could be a potential barrier given that she’s at least 4 years away from being able to run again, although she seems to be fairly uninterested in the position. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. is currently running an intense race for Senate that could put her on pace to be the next woman nominee if she wins, or it could severely set that back if she loses. Gov. Susana Martinez, R-NM may have the most direct line to being nominated, but her best shot is if Sec. Clinton wins this election and the Republican party has to undergo gigantic changes and in that case she wouldn’t be the first woman president anyway (though she would be the first Latina president).

What I’m trying to say is that when you get down to it, there are only a handful of well known women politicians who could clinch a major party nomination within the next decade. I mean look at Sec. Clinton’s run: it took the name recognition of being 1st Lady and then a Senator for one of the most populous states in the Country before she was able to *almost* clinch the nomination in 2008, and even then she wasn’t able to. That loss led to her serving as Secretary of State to later run with not only some of the most incredible name recognition we’ve seen outside of a Kennedy or a Bush, but also a long list of bona fide qualifications and credentials the likes of which Presidential candidates almost never have for her to finally clinch the nomination in surprisingly contested primaries where her challenger started out with essentially no name recognition. What am I saying here? It’s damn hard for a woman to clinch a major party’s nomination. Which is a testament to Sec. Clinton for doing so. That glass ceiling is very much real, and I would never debate its existence. What I am debating, however, is that that glass ceiling is still there.

As excited as I am to see Sec. Clinton *hopefully! dear god hopefully* sworn in this coming January, she has not shattered the glass ceiling, and will not have even if in a few months time we’re referring to her as President Hillary Clinton. Just like President Obama serving two terms, going down in history as the nation’s first black president, is absolutely historic and something that could not have happened fifty years ago, but President Obama himself would be the first to tell you that his election in it of itself didn’t somehow automatically make race relations better and end racism. He has done a lot to work towards those goals, as I’m sure Sec. Clinton will do a lot to fight for gender equality if she is elected. But the elections themselves mean more for history, and perhaps for inspiring youth to believe they can achieve what people say is impossible, than they do for automatically fixing anything. This nomination will have a gigantic impact on the history of our country and the narrative of that history, and it’s very possible that it might make that battle I just described Sec. Clinton going through just a little bit easier for women in the future, but unfortunately in itself it does fairly little to influence the way the glass ceiling operates in our society.

This may seem like a fairly pessimistic or cynical view, but before we get into it, let’s look at the actual definition of the glass ceiling, which is something that a lot of news sources don’t think or care about when writing about this legitimately historic moment. There are many scholarly and colloquial definitions of the glass ceiling, and there has been much disagreement since Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt coined the term in their 1986 article for the Wall Street Journal. I chose to utilize the definition researchers came to in “The Glass Ceiling Effect” (Cotter, Hermsen, Ovadia, & Vanneman, 2001) due to its thorough explanation of how a glass ceiling differs from gender discrimination at large and the 4 criteria it uses to reach a comprehensive definition. But this is certainly not a term that is universally understood, or even universally liked. I would be remiss not to tell you that many activists see the phrase as an inappropriate metaphor and one that should be done away with. While I’m not going to be arguing that we do away with the phrase altogether, Zoe Williams, author of the latter linked Guardian article makes many of the same points I will make.

So before we go any further, let’s take a look at the 4 criteria which we’re adopting as the formal definition of the Glass Ceiling:

  1. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee.
  2. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome.
  3. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels.
  4. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career.

Cotter, D.A., Hermsen, J.M., Ovadia, S., & Vanneman, R. December 2001. The glass ceiling effect*. Social Forces, 80(2), 655-682.

The reason the authors of this article lay out these 4 criteria instead of one complete definition, is that each of these, according to the authors, is an unique and unalterable piece of the proper definition of the glass ceiling. If even one of these criteria is not met, the authors argue that the phenomena being studied cannot be a glass ceiling effect, but is simply gender or racial inequality. This makes sense because if the glass ceiling is simply meant to refer to any kind of discrimination in the workplace or the political arena, then it is a redundant and superfluous phrase that doesn’t really mean anything. It has to have a significant meaning that no other term covers, which is what defining it through these criteria does.

With that as a backdrop, we can simplify our definition to “a progressive mechanism of gender or racial inequality which produces an environment for minorities in several arenas which makes it more difficult than their white and/or male colleagues to advance in their sector.” The key criteria being that the glass ceiling is progressive (in the sense that the resistance intensifies as one moves forward, not in the sense that it is the work of social/political progressives). Think of it like running from the beach where the waves are hitting, up a very large sand dune: at first it’s pretty easy to run because you’re on the wet and level sand that’s been pounded by the waves, then once you get a little further away from the ocean the sand is still level, but it’s dry which makes it harder to run, it only gets harder once you start up the dune because the sand is still dry and difficult to get a foothold on, but now it’s even more difficult because you have to try to gain altitude, and the farther up the dune you get, the harder it is and the more worn out you are. That’s the key to the glass ceiling, the more you push against it, the harder it pushes back.

Now thinking of Sec. Clinton’s nomination, she has certainly made it through a glass ceiling (major party nomination) and in the political sphere, has one more to push through (being elected the first woman president). And you can even see how the idea of the glass ceiling pushes back harder the more she pushes against it in her campaigns. Twice, less established and less known candidates seemingly came out of nowhere in the Democratic primaries – once to beat her, and another time to give her a run for her money (literally). As Sec. Clinton has been closer and closer to the top spot lately, she has faced more scrutiny under less pretense than any political figure I can remember. She’s been through several Republican led Benghazi trials, all which concluded she did nothing wrong, though that certainly didn’t stop them from organizing the next one… which would come to the same conclusion. She’s been through the server thing which had Republicans at the convention screaming “lock her up” after a Republican director of the FBI concluded that there were no grounds to file criminal charges against her following a 2 year long investigation. And one would be foolish to think that she’s faced this amount of exhausting and at times completely uncivil opposition just because she’s one of the most prominent Democrats. That may be part of it, but a large part of Sec. Clinton’s almost unimaginably difficult path to the White House is very likely due to sexism in the form of the glass ceiling pushing back harder and harder the farther she goes.

Now, we’ve established what the glass ceiling is. We’ve established how it’s played a role in Sec. Clinton’s political life. But we haven’t gotten into the whole “shattering the glass ceiling” rhetoric. Based on the last paragraph you might be thinking “how can she not have shattered the glass ceiling when you just clearly stated that it’s been working against her?” The answer to that is in the semantics of it. Most times you hear someone say “oh now you’re just debating semantics,” they’re saying that your argument no longer means anything. But that’s a disservice to words and their power, and this is a perfect example why. You now know an academic definition of the glass ceiling if you didn’t before. Now, what would you think of with that definition in mind if I were to say “that’s the definition, and yes, Sec. Clinton has shattered the glass ceiling?” You’d probably, justly, think “okay so the glass ceiling doesn’t exist anymore for anyone” or maybe “okay so it doesn’t exist in politics anymore, we’ve done away with it.”

Here’s the thing about that: it’s not true. And I can prove that it’s not true. A 2015 Pew Research study reported that at the time of the study there were 18 women world leaders and in the 50 years up to 2014, 63 of 142 nations had had women leaders at one point, with India, Ireland, and Bangladesh having women leaders serving a combined 21 of the 50 years in each Country. So, since the Glass Ceiling is a global phenomenon (and, while it operates differently depending on culture, it very much is) and 63 nations have had a woman serve as their head of state, that should certainly be enough to pummel that political glass ceiling to tiny shards, shouldn’t it? And that, of course, would mean that Sec. Clinton’s campaign for the presidency was no more difficult than any man’s campaign, and she was subject to no more scrutiny. Clearly that is not the case. And the reason that all those nations who have had women “shatter the glass ceiling” hasn’t helped make Sec. Clinton’s road to the nomination (let’s not get ahead of ourselves) any easier isn’t because of some sociological rule that “it has to be shattered in every country.” It’s because it can’t be shattered by one person. Which is why you have activists saying we should find a better metaphor. The glass ceiling isn’t something that just breaks and then ceases to exist once a woman rises to the top spot. It is there until we as a society figure out how to collectively shatter it, meaning that women in every field will advance with nothing more in their way than any of the rest of their fellow colleagues have. Until that day, every historic “first” for women will certainly be a day to celebrate, but it will be much more akin to someone getting absorbed through the glass ceiling until they’re standing on it than taking a baseball bat and smashing it out of existence.

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