“Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time, and we are going to keep working to make it so, today keep with me and stand for me, we still have so much to do together, we made history, and let’s make some more.”[1]

Hillary Rodham Clinton

This quote by Hillary Clinton addresses women’s most insurmountable obstacle: the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is a term we use to describe the metaphorical ceiling, a translucent barrier, which keeps women from moving up in the professional hierarchy. This metaphorical ceiling was created and is strengthened by pervasive sexism. Women are kept from advancing because they are women and are thought to be inherently less capable, prone to mistakes and irrationality, and chained to maternity. All of these supposed characteristics paint women as lesser compared to their male counterparts in the workplace. By generalizing all women in this way and making decisions based upon these presumptions, employers systematically limit women from achieving and earning in the same manner as most men in the work force.

Women are engaged in an endless battle, fighting to equalize themselves with men. It took decades upon decades for women with careers to be recognized as having value above that of a schoolteacher or nurse – roles to which they are prescribed due to a generalized maternal instinct and caring nature. Women and men are not regarded as equals, especially in the workforce. In the United States, and around the world, this is evidenced through the gender wage gap, through sexual discrimination during interviews, and through occupational barriers to entry in the labor force. Today, labor force statistics exhibit succinct evidence of the existence of a glass ceiling for American women.

According to research conducted by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOC) in 2013, American women have seen increased labor force participation rates from the mid-1960s onward. However, despite overall increases in labor force participation rates for women, occupational barriers to professional and administrative positions still exist. In 2013, women occupied only 38.6 percent of administrative or managerial positions.[2] Despite any gains in employment made by women in the last 50 years, American women are still victim to the gender wage gap. The annual median earnings of women working full time in 2013 was $39,157, compared with men at $50,033.[3] The United States still faces continuing challenges concerning the experiences of women in the workforce.

Source: Women in the American Workforce. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.
Source: Women in the American Workforce. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

This isn’t just an American phenomenon. The glass ceiling extends above women’s heads everywhere. In Eastern Europe, the gender discrimination which perpetuates the glass ceiling has historic roots. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin came to power. Lenin attempted to catalyze the liberation of women and their progress toward gender equality in the Soviet Union under communism. He wished to engage in a social and economic transformation of the old, capitalist system, believing that it was the norms of the capitalist, bourgeois social class which were oppressing Soviet women.[4] As we learned from Pavla Vesela’s The Hardening of “Cement”: Russian Women and Modernization, his path to female emancipation was hypocritical and contradictory at best.

In the 1920s, the Bolshevik government started establishing a framework guaranteeing legal equality for women by repealing patriarchal and oppressive legislation (e.g.divorce proceedings).[5] Lenin decreed women to work alongside men in the proletariat (collective), a politically-minded class of workers who engaged in collective labor. He believed that, through employment, women could be equals to men. If women were able to work, to earn their own wage, and develop skills outside the home, they could free themselves from the domestic slavery which plagued bourgeois society and preserved women’s inferiority to men.[4] As the transition progressed, the Soviet Union began to see ever-changing requirements of women under communism. Newer changes required women to reproduce on behalf of the state; but, the state promised domestic duties would be shared by the collective.[5] This was not the case as, soon after, additional changes surfaced which required women to establish the infrastructure (e.g. milk bars, daycares, dining halls, kindergartens) necessary to delegate the domestic duties they were neglecting due to their “equalizing” labor force participation without help from state.[5]

In the end, women were not left with full gender equality. The communist state became afraid of how society would function with liberated women instead of  domestically-enslaved and subordinate women, viewing liberation as a threat to traditional social order and the family unit.[5] The solution, then, was to reintroduce pro-natalist policies of early socialism and place an even stronger emphasis on motherhood. This fear and disillusionment of liberated women did not lead to the modernization of the Soviet Union, but rather, led to the rejuvenation and preservation of patriarchal tradition – the bourgeois way of life that Lenin detested as filthy and limiting for women under capitalism.[5] Women were not made equals to men, or provided opportunity to truly transcend limitations to employment. Ericka Johnson in her novel Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance was able to capture the essence of Slavic women’s feelings toward their “emancipation” under communism by writing, “For the women who were forced to rely on [the benefits of “emancipation”], their promises of emancipation rang hollow.”[6]

We saw an excellent example of a the limitations of working women under communism in Natalia Baranskaia’s “A Week Like Any Other.”[7] This story detailed the life of Olga Voronkova, an educated, Russian woman, living under communism who works as a researcher in a lab. Olga’s position is lowly situated in the professional hierarchy. Although she is clearly educated enough to progress in her career and wishes to do so, she faces an insurmountable occupational barrier as a woman living within a patriarchal, cultural framework. She was barred from progressing from researcher to manager. She was trapped by the translucent glass ceiling which extends above the heads of all women, everywhere.

During communism and the the period of the collective, there were several characteristics of a position which determined a woman’s inability to fill it.[8] Most applicable to Olga’s experience is restriction from managerial positions. Men were thought to be the more capable sex; therefore, men were more qualified to hold managerial positions. Due to this pervasive sexism and fear that maternity leave would interfere with a woman’s ability to assume an authoritative position, like manager, women were restricted from filling these positions.[4] These norms elevated men to leadership roles and left women to fill lesser roles.

Women were also restricted from “dangerous” jobs.[4] Communist leaders feared women could be harmed if employed in positions which involved hard labor or risk. As women were first and foremost valued as reproducers and mothers, they could not be harmed. Women were also limited to jobs which required only short, daytime hours. All of these restrictions had severe implications. Working additional hours or in a dangerous job, meant greater income; thus, women were also systematically restricted from high paying jobs. This causes them to continue to be financially dependent on their husbands – the breadwinners – as bourgeois family structure originally intended. Furthermore, because of these limitations, women were forced into their prescribed gender roles: wife, reproducer, and mother. As you can imagine, to keep a woman within the realm of the domestic means to systematically bar her from workforce participation and financial independence from her husband, as well.

Not all women are like Olga Voronkova in that they wish to pursue a career, but many do wish to gain financial independence. Olga, a character from Johnson’s Dreaming of a mail-order husband, encapsulated this by saying, “I don’t want a career. My family will be my first priority, but I do want to have a job and make money.”[6] To many women, having a career means giving up their personal, private lives at home.[9] For many of these women, workforce participation is desirable, but developing a fully-fledged career is not. Many Eastern European women enjoy their deep involvement in the domestic sphere, but also have some desire for independence, whether that be financial or just an opportunity to explore interests outside of the home. Although they are not vying for the same professional careers, these women are still hindered by discrimination in the workplace.

In modern-day Russia, positions which require few technical skills and have limited capacity for promotion are reserved for women. These positions include cashiers, human resources managers, and personal assistants and are often associated with low salaries.[10] Positions associated with higher pay and greater degrees of authority are reserved for men. Corporate officers, administrators, and university department heads are usually male.[10] It is becoming increasingly more common to see women in managerial positions in the service industry, but the power and privileges associated with high-ranking positions in this industry are not comparable to those in corporate or administrative settings. Female segregation into occupations associated with lower wages, like the service industry, emerges as the main contributor to the gender pay gap. According to data collected by the World Bank, in Eastern Europe the earnings gap between men and women persists regardless of matching characteristics (i.e. age, education, marital status, presence of children in the household) between employees of either sex.[11] Women are systematically barred from employment in high-paying sectors of the job market due to discrimination. Pervasive inequality for and discrimination against women in the workplace is evident.

On an optimistic note, there is increasing labor force participation of women in Russia. Unfortunately, the hindrances to women’s career mobility still exist there, as well. Russian feminism is developed enough for a woman to make a career if she so wishes, but the social relations of power, authority, and dominance assigned on the basis of gender and sex endure, so glass ceiling is preserved. Still, there is hope for female citizens of some former Soviet satellites as the EU has made definitive attempts to crack the glass ceiling through targeting gender discrimination in the workplace through anti-discriminatory policy.[12] Policy is only one step in the right direction. A woman’s predominant role should not be to reproduce. Rather, a woman, no matter where she resides, should be able to harmoniously balance employment and motherhood. It is unwise to leave women’s professional aptitudes unearthed, for the various contributions they can make to society in professional roles are valuable, as well. Here is to hoping that the glass ceiling will be a figment of our daughters and our daughter’s daughters imaginations.

Works Cited

[1] Clinton, Hillary. 9, November 2016, New Yorker Hotel, New York, NY. Concession Speech.

[2] “AMERICAN EXPERIENCES VERSUS AMERICAN EXPECTATIONS.” American Experiences Versus American Expectations. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 3 Aug. (2015). Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

[3] “Women in the American Workforce.” Women in the American Workforce. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2013). Web. 02 Dec. 2016.

[4] Lenin, Vladimir Ilʹich. On the emancipation of women. Progress Publishers. (1974).

[5] Vesela, Pavla. “The Hardening of Cement: Russian Women and Modernization.” NWSA Journal 15.3 (2003).

[6] Johnson, Ericka. Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance. Duke University Press. (2007).

[7] Baranskaia, Natalia. A week like any other: novellas and stories. Seal Press. (1990).

[8] Graff, A. Untitled. Untitled Blog Post. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. (2016). Web.

[9] Tolstaya, Tatiana. “Women’s Lives.”.” Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians (2003): 1-13.

[10] “Labor Force, Female (% of Total Labor Force).” Labor Force, Female (% of Total Labor Force) | Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2016. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.TLF.TOTL.FE.ZS

[11] “GENDER EARNINGS GAPS IN THE WORLD.” WORLD DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2012(n.d.): n. pag. The World Bank, 20 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2016.


[12] Reding, Viviane. “It’s Time to Break the Glass Ceiling for Europe’s Women | Viviane Reding.” Opinion. Guardian News and Media, 19 Nov. (2012). Web. 20 Dec. 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/nov/19/time-break-glass-ceiling-women-europe

Anna Graff

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