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The Glass Escalator effect talks about a situation where men employed in female or minority dominated professions are promoted faster, and tend to rise to higher positions with more ease than their female colleagues; thereby implying that even in typically female jobs, we are more likely to see more men than women in leadership positions.

How Does It Manifest Itself?

My first stint as a development practitioner, was in Uttar Pradesh as a field coordinator. The job profile entailed working with women led Self Help Groups (SHGs) and the local governance structures to facilitate better planning and ultimately “women empowerment”. This was my first time on the field, and boy was I excited; but that excitement wore out quickly. As a woman, I was so often treated to an overwhelming amount of contempt and ridicule by the government officials I worked with, that on the worst days, entering those offices was a battle. 

This is not just my story. This the story of a number of women who dare enter the workforce. As women, we face a myriad of barriers to entry. These may range from the familial pressure to get married, lack of options for transport, societal conditioning that restricts mobility and many many more. The strength of these barriers vary with various factors like our caste, our social standing, our sexuality and religious preferences. Those of us who make it past the initial set of barriers find ourselves in male dominated environments, and are left to deal with harassment and a paternalistic attitude at the hands of our upper class, savarna, cis male counter parts all while being paid less than them. Any disadvantage that we face is often chalked up to our numerical rarity in the work space. 

Some of the best responses I have heard so far are, “…being harassed by men is a part of field work” & “…some of these men are working with women in close proximity for the first time and this is to be expected”. 

Sectors like engineering and business have typically been male dominated and present more barriers to entry to women. However, in professions like nursing, education and social work these barriers are relatively easier to traverse. Hence, the dichotomy between male-dominated and female dominated jobs. In 1992, sociologist Christine Williams looked into men’s underrepresentation in female dominated industries and the consequent disadvantages they face with regard to wages, promotions, work place culture, and interactions with clients.

THE GLASS ESCALATOR HOWEVER, DOESN’T STOP WITH THE IDENTIFICATION OF DISCREPANCIES, IN “FEMALE JOBS”. IT ALERTS US TO THE HIERARCHY THAT EXISTS WITHIN THE WORKFORCE AND THE WAY JOBS ARE CLASSIFIED IN THE ECONOMY. HAVING ACCORDED MORE POWER TO THE MASCULINE, THE “MALE DOMINATED” JOBS TEND TO COME WITH HIGHER PRESTIGE AND PAY.

Men In Women-Dominated Professions

Her study looked at men in four occupations ; nursing, librarianship, elementary school teaching and social work. The basis of Williams’ study was the theory of tokenism first proposed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in 1977. She speculated that token workers (individuals who are less in number along the lines of race, caste, class etc.) were bound to experience a greater degree of marginalisation as opposed to non-token workers and that this would be true regardless of the social context.

Williams assumed that if this theory were to stand true, men were bound to face discrimination in female dominated jobs the same way women did in male dominated jobs.The men that Williams talked to during the course of her study talked of numerous advantages that came with being men in a female dominated environment. Williams observes that these advantages came to them by virtue of being men.

I was lucky enough to be surrounded by an army of fierce women -within my team and within the community I worked with. The most interesting part of my work were my interactions with these women largely because I felt comfortable engaging in conversation and banter with them and vice versa. However, my interactions with the government officials (almost always a man) was often fraught with anxiety and frustration. For the men on my team however, it was the other way round. They had a better chance of being heard by the district and block level officials and a greater extent of physical mobility than either I or other women on my team did.

Men working in a women dominated profession is rare. Nursing, teaching, social work etc., are professions that typically require one to exhibit empathy and sensitivity, also called soft skills that are typically associated with women. So, when a man opts for one of these professions, they invite a flurry of jokes, stereotyping and questions about their sexuality, and ‘ulterior motives’ ( For eg., any joke about male nurses you might have heard or cracked). However, instead of being pushed out of the sector completely, this difference between masculine and feminine manifests itself most commonly in the division of labour, or in the way people respond to you taking up certain tasks. This chain of command/division of labor can often be traced throughout the organisational structure. 

Very little has been said of the experiences of the LGBT+ community apart from the fact that gay & lesbian teachers often felt the pressure to conform to heteronormative standards of appearance and behaviour to avoid attracting attention to their sexuality.

Despite being involved in a project that aimed for empowering the women, it boasted of an overwhelmingly male leadership. Decision making processes that were to be made on behalf of the SHG were carried out by appointed bookkeepers (who were sometimes the husbands of these women). These men had more authority over the SHG with regard to its day to day transactions and its agenda, and were notorious for barking orders at women. This then went up to officials (again men) who sat at the district and block levels and called the shots and made project decisions based on their whims and fancies. These men were in turn answerable to men at the state level took the lead on these and numerous other projects according to their convenience and at the command of those who sat even higher up.

Also read: Chandrayaan 2: The Rocket Women Breaking The Glass Ceilings In STEM

Despite the stigma from outsiders, these men were treated with high regard amongst their female colleagues and supervisors. Hence, their position on the Glass Escalator.

The Glass Escalator however, doesn’t stop with the identification of discrepancies, in “female jobs”. It alerts us to the hierarchy that exists within the workforce and the way jobs are classified in the economy. Having accorded more power to the masculine, the “male dominated” jobs tend to come with higher prestige and pay. However, even less association with the males implies a dip in both prestige and wages. Women in India form a large chunk of the work force in industries such as agriculture, education, textiles and domestic service. Despite this, very few women who undertake agricultural work on behalf of their family are considered to be working women. 

In 2013, Williams wrote another paper stating the different reasons because of which the Glass Escalator should be resigned. When she first coined the term, it was based on assumptions of traditional work spaces, stable employment and support for public institutions. These conditions, she states, have undergone a drastic transformation in the neo-liberal era. The other blunder she cites is the disregard for the impact of race, class and sexuality. 

Very little has been said of the experiences of the LGBT+ community apart from the fact that gay & lesbian teachers often felt the pressure to conform to heteronormative standards of appearance and behaviour to avoid attracting attention to their sexuality. Adia Harvey Wingfield built on Williams’ work and looked into the experiences of black male nurses and concluded that black men faced glass barriers to riding the glass escalator. Wingfield attributed this glass barrier to a persistent racial imagery that dictated interactions between black men and white women. 

While I concur with Williams’ critique of the Glass Escalator, I do not believe that it should be retired completely. Rather, it would bode well to expand the theory by exploring various aspects of the work place including what may constitute “female dominated” jobs and the various layers it comes with; the experiences of racial, class based and caste based minorities and the division of labour along these dimensions; inputs of members of the LGBT+ community on how the glass escalator presents itself to them and lastly, how masculinity can be redefined to include traits such as care and empathy. 

Also read: 9 Indian Women in Combat Who Broke The Glass Ceiling

There is no denying that a Glass Escalator does exist, but one must be cognisant of the fact that exclusion and marginalisation of those oppressed by caste, sexuality, race and class fortifies it. 


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