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Remembering Marilyn Loden, who gave a name to the glass ceiling

Woman hold a banner for equal pay during a 2018 march in Munich, Germany.
Alexander Pohl
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Woman hold a banner for equal pay during a 2018 march in Munich, Germany.

When Marilyn Loden first uttered the phrase "the glass ceiling" in the 1970s, and even as it became an increasingly permanent fixture of the lexicon, she hoped the invisible barrier it described would soon become a thing of the past.

Instead, it outlived her. Loden — who died in August at age 76 after a battle with cancer in — was saddened to know that would be the case, according to a recent obituary in the Napa Valley Register.

"I thought I would be finished with this by the end of my lifetime, but I won't be," Loden told The Washington Post in 2018. "I'm hoping if it outlives me, it will [become] an antiquated phrase. People will say, 'There was a time when there was a glass ceiling.' "

While the glass ceiling may be Loden's most memorable contribution to society, it's far from her only legacy.

After her early years in human resources, Loden went on to become a management consultant and workplace diversity advocate who worked with a wide variety of entities, from Citibank to the University of California to the U.S. Navy. Her work at the Navy led to policy changes increasing leader accountability for sexual harassment and lifting the ban prohibiting women sailors from serving on submarines, and she received its civilian Superior Service Medal in 2016.

Loden authored three books, the first of which — called Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys — was deemed one of the 50 best business books of 1985 by the Library Journal and has been published in six languages.

Loden was also a benefactor of numerous causes including global health, animal rights and democracy. She was predeceased by her husband, and leaves behind a sister, two nephews and grand-nieces and many close friends, according to the obituary.

"Friends and family often described her as 'the smartest person I know,' and she could be wickedly funny," it added. "Throughout her many years as a consultant, speaker, and author, she attracted many women who were inspired and motivated by her own story and passion."

Loden gave an impromptu name to a pervasive problem

This particular chapter of Loden's story began at the 1978 Women's Exposition, a feminist conference in New York City.

Loden, then 31 and working in the HR department at New York Telephone Co., was invited to join a discussion panel about women's advancement (after the company's only female vice president couldn't make it, according to The Post).

The panel was called "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" and focused on "messages of limitation which confront women and the effect on aspirations," as Loden recalled in a 2008 blog post. She happened to be the last speaker, meaning she had time to listen to — and reflect on — the other panelists' comments.

"It was a struggle to sit quietly and listen to all the criticisms," she wrote.

The speakers focused on generalizations and stereotypes about women — that they weren't properly socialized for success, they limited their own career aspirations due to low self-esteem — that bore very little resemblance to Loden's own observations and experiences in the workplace.

"True, women did seem unable to climb the career ladder beyond the lowest rung of middle management and there were certainly moments when I had seen capable women managers filled with self-doubt about their own abilities to 'do the job,' " she wrote. "However, while the general lack of advancement was evident, it seemed to me the causes were very different from the ones enumerated by my fellow presenters."

When it was finally Loden's time to speak, she chose to talk about concrete, cultural barriers to women's professional success, like the biased attitudes of male managers, unequal pay and a lack of role models and emotional support for women. And she gave those obstacles a name: the invisible glass ceiling. She later told The Post that the metaphor came to her in the moment, and didn't seem like a big deal.

"These comments drew some surprised looks from the other panelists but the response from the audience made it clear that my words had struck a familiar cord," Loden wrote in her blog post. "Until that moment, it seemed we were relentlessly blamed for our lack of progress because, as women in a man's world, we didn't 'dress for success' or 'play games mother never taught us.' "

Loden later recalled some of her own experiences with the glass ceiling, telling the BBC in 2017 that her male boss often told her to smile more and "made a point of commenting on my appearance at literally every meeting."

She was told repeatedly that the advancement of women within middle management was "degrading the importance" of those positions. And she lost out on a promotion to a male coworker despite her better performance record, because, as her employer told her, the coworker was a "family man" who was his household's main breadwinner and therefore needed the money more.

Loden left the company after working there for 12 years, when she was ordered to take a job that she didn't want.

Despite relative strides, the problem and the phrase have persisted

While Loden is widely credited with creating "the glass ceiling," a sprinkling of archival bread crumbs suggest a few others started using the phrase around the same time.

The phrase first appeared in writing in a 1984 AdWeek profile of Gay Bryant, who was then the editor of Working Women magazine (Merriam-Webster lists its origin as that same year). The Wall Street Journalhas reported that the phrase may have originated at a dinner conversation between two female employees of Hewlett-Packard in 1979, and also noted that it appeared in a headline in its own pages in 1986.

Whatever its origins, the "glass ceiling" made its way into print, popular culture and politics in the 1980s and has maintained its status as a reliable shorthand in the decades since.

In 1991, Congress created the Glass Ceiling Commission to address the advancement of women and minorities in business: Its final report, issued in 1995, found that women held only three to five percent of senior management positions in Fortune 500 companies, and that in those rare cases, their compensation was lower than that of their male counterparts..

The phrase has popped up in significant speeches by women leaders in fields such as business, entertainment and politics, including in several speeches by Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and first woman to be nominated by a major party. From the late former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's shattered glass brooch to a glass portrait of Vice President Harris (the first woman, the first Black person and the first Asian American to be elected to that role), the imagery is still pervasive.

So too is the problem it represents. According to the 2021 Women CEOs in America report, just 8.2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and less than one percent are women of color.

While there's much room for improvement, there has been some progress in the years since Loden first addressed that feminist panel. She reflected on that in 2017, as one of the BBC 100 Women.

"Over the past four decades women have closed the education gap, moved into non-traditional jobs at remarkably high rates, simultaneously managed families and challenging careers, and demonstrated their ability to innovate, inspire and manage effectively in every sector of the global workplace," she said. "We need only remove the blinkers to appreciate and leverage all that they have to offer."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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