Applying the busting-through-the-glass-ceiling narrative to women presumes that they haven't already

May 26, 2010 — 7:18 AM UTC by Elizabeth MacBride


Last week, when I was in the doctor’s office, a Time magazine caught my eye with the headline: The Sheriffs of Wall Street. On the cover was a photo of Sheila Blair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Mary Schapiro, SEC chair, and Elizabeth Warren, chair of the panel with oversight of the TARP bank bailout.

I was interested to see how Michael Sherer explained the ins and outs of financial reform for a lay audience, so I started flipping through. I’m on the second or third page – sometime after he lobbed in descriptions of the women’s families and pregnancies and made a sweeping statement about how none of them ever aspired to corporate suites – before I realize that his point was broader, shallower and irritating.

In fact, this Time magazine article’s point was that women by definition of being women, are outsiders who, it is implied, will be able to bring order to the Street.

After I figured out that he was making the case that these women are outsiders, I grew curious about how he would handle Mary Schapiro. The advisors I’ve talked to about her see her as a Wall Street insider and a career regulator with much of their future in her hands. She worked at NASD, the precursor to FINRA, starting in 1996, and rose to be chairman of FINRA before being appointed to the SEC.

Tougher-than-they-look women

I found that Sherer skipped over that entire section of Ms. Schapiro’s resume. I understood why. This situation called for serious, nuanced journalism about what these women were planning – but it’s a lot easier to fall back on a familiar, sure-to-get-hits narrative: that of the tougher-than-they-look women taking on the Street.

I wasn’t the only person to be bothered by Sherer’s piece. Fran Hawthorne, a colleague of mine whose books include Pension Dumping and The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, posted this on her blog: Yes. There are Powerful Women in Washington Who Are Moms.

Maybe the reason Fran and I both reacted so strongly to the piece is that we’ve read so many pieces that sound so much like this over the years, and even lately. Indeed, the coverage about Elena Kagan has been similarly breathless: Look! A single woman! Could be a Supreme Court Justice!

American culture is littered with such narratives like the one that Sherer used to construct his story. Many such narratives serve cultural purposes, arguably good or bad. There’s the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative that inspires entrepreneurs. There’s the immigrant family story: we came here with nothing and built the American dream.

The women-busting-through-the-glass-ceiling narrative is newer than either of those two, but frankly, it’s old to me, and, I suspect, to many other professional women.

Glass factor

I understand why it’s easy, and comforting. Indeed, it maintains the status quo. In this story line, women remain on the other side of the glass, and just starting to break through.

Truthfully, though, we have moved beyond it.

In fact, framing the story entirely and simplistically around gender is a detriment to the cause of women, who still face patterns of discrimination that deserve nuanced attention from employers and policy makers, and to the effort to reform the financial system.

Will Schapiro embrace the suitability standard? How powerful will the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency be? And will anything be done to stop the still-rising foreclosure crisis? I’d have the same questions for three male regulators.

Share your thoughts and opinions with the author or other readers.


Sondra Harris Public Relations said:

May 26, 2010 — 3:30 PM UTC

Taking Elizabeth’s point one step further, increasing numbers of female financial advisors have virtually crashed that glass ceiling. They are flourishing alongside their male counterparts and making vast contributions to the RIA and investment management industries.


Andy Martin said:

February 9, 2017 — 9:31 PM UTC

Hilarious that when Warren gasps: "attempt to rip billions of dollars of retirement savings from the pockets of hardworking Americans and put straight into the hands of giant financial institutions" that the supporters she lauds: Betterment, XY Planning and Personal Capital, will be the new beneficiaries of those $billions. What a bunch of rubes.

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