Glass Ceilings, Chandeliers…& Making Women’s Empowerment Less Performative

This is a transcript of a keynote address I gave on International Women’s Day 2021:

A little about myself…

My name is Seun Shokunbi, and I’m the Principal Consultant and Founder of Karfi, as well as its charitable arm The Karfi Foundation.

I have over a decade of experience as an educator, advocate for education reform, data analysis, and fundraising on behalf of civil society organizations and not-for-profit institutions both in the U.S. and Africa.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and Communications from Fordham University. I also graduated magna cum laude from SOAS, University of London.

This time last year I gave my first TED talk, and I’ve also been a speaker for Columbia University’s Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, Startup Week San Diego, and Corporate Counsel Women of Color…

But now, I’ll give you a more vulnerable side to my story.

I remember at the beginning of my entrepreneurship journey getting invited to a sponsored networking dinner at the Capital Grille in Rockefeller Center. I was part of a select group of young women professionals invited to rub shoulders with pioneers in their industry. It was an honor and a privilege.

The people I got to meet were great, but every day I think about the FOOD. There was endless wine as we had our fill of filet mignon, a massive seafood platter, and multiple dessert options, all on someone else’s tab.

And I remember sitting there chomping away at my plate and chatting away about the amazing consulting firm I just started, putting on my best boss babe face while my inner voice kept making me feel like a scam artist.

Earlier that day, I had checked my newly established business account and saw it just went into the negative, after almost a year of becoming an entrepreneur by force after being laid off by my previous job.

No matter how many networking events I attended, how many professional women organizations I joined, or how many degrees I earned, I constantly felt like I was experiencing a different reality than I should expect for someone in my position.

Women like me — Black, of first-generation immigrant status — can be seated in places of privilege and still feel completely out of place. That’s because even at the so-called “top”, we’re not reaping the full benefits of the pioneers in close proximity to us.

Over the years, I’ve seen my white, female friends getting on the Forbes 30 Under 30 List, building multi-million valued companies, or being the first in their field to do this, that, and the other. Or as they would describe it, breaking the glass ceiling.

We take that term for granted, so let’s break down what “glass ceiling” truly means.

The term “glass ceiling” came from two Wall Street Journal writers Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt.

It’s officially described as “obstacles faced by female managers, stymied by “corporate tradition and prejudice” rather than overt discrimination.”

I do take issue with alluding to covert discrimination because when we look up the word “overt”, combine it with the dictionary definition of “discrimination”, then observe the obvious makeup of most leadership hierarchies (whether in politics, startups, or corporations), the discrimination is VERY blatant.

According to a survey published in a Washington Post article, that term didn’t sit well with certain women who felt “glass ceiling” didn’t adequately describe their professional struggles.

If we use the metaphor of a skyscraper, oftentimes women like me are stuck several floors below, and what’s usually described as the glass ceiling is really an observation deck where the purest form of privilege is within the grasp of the 600 billionaires in America, of which 516 are men, only 6 of which are Black men, and 14% are women.

Let’s talk about the 14% of American women who’ve made it to the billionaire suite on the observation deck. Only one of them is a woman of color — Oprah Winfrey.

And even with a net worth of $2.5 billion, she’s only 3% the value of the richest woman in the world — Francoise Bettencourt Meyers.

I want to address the issue of women of varying identities, having achieving professional goals at uneven rates even though we’re all attempting to move in the same direction — UP the corporate ranks.

So let’s also talk about the median net worth of the average person, based on race & gender. The circles here literally represent how much larger a pie each demographic owns of the nation’s wealth.

Between white, single men and Black, single women, the gap is multiplied by 224. So, using the analogy of the skyscraper, Black, single women would have to walk up 224 flights of stairs to land on the same level as white men who are single.

While white, single women still get less of a share compared to men of the same race, they only have to increase their net worth by 3.5x to catch up.

Going back to my personal story about my credentials not matching up with my experiences: statistically, Black women in the U.S. are the most educated, yet conversely we remain underpaid.

The U.S. still holds the title of “Land of the Free” in the minds of most immigrants. However, the country gives immigrant women less access to upskilling through postsecondary education even though they choose America over most other countries as their new home.

When they are gainfully employed, no matter their educational attainment, they are more likely to live at the poverty level.

By the end of my talk, I want us to answer two questions. How is something like this detrimental to our fight for gender equity in leadership? And what’s really our goal: to shatter glass ceilings or make performative/decorative gestures (i.e. install chandeliers) at every ceiling we encounter along the way?

Some Black women pointed out the lack of transparency in what it takes to become a pioneer in their field.

If the ceiling were truly made of glass we’d at least be able to see and plan for what exists on the other side. In other words, many Black women feel that they’re sold the idea of a professional breakthrough by breaking through this barrier, yet those breakthroughs never materialize.

In an article published last year by The Guardian, several Black women lamented about being coerced to do additional work that they weren’t compensated for.

The Center for American Progress tells us that “Black women’s labor participation rate is higher than the rate for all other women…” What we mean by that is the amount of labor they’re producing on behalf of employers, companies, and/or industries (e.g. as entrepreneurs) exceeds that of any other women group.

“…yet Black women remain less likely than their white counterparts to occupy higher-level jobs that offer better benefits, greater mobility, and economic stability.” This essentially equates to exploitation.

Black women doctors sacrificing their lives on the frontlines during the recent pandemic were paid nearly $17 less than white physicians with the same role and expertise (according to CNBC).

So “breaking the glass ceiling” is an approach pursued based on privilege — the privilege of being the right race even if you’re not the ideal gender. The type of women who’ve managed to at least touch if not crack the ceiling are mainly white.

And I have a couple of quotes to back this up. From The Washington Post:

“The apparent contradiction between the plethora of glass ceiling related metaphors …suggests that even memorable metaphors based on extensive empirical research are doing little to help counter the perception that women are not made of the ‘right stuff’ for leadership.”

“[I]t also implies that women and men have equal opportunity at lower levels, that women are somehow unaware of the obstacle, and it doesn’t reflect the complexity of challenges women face throughout their careers.”

The only additional qualifier I’d add to this second quote is that some intersections of women (taking from Kimberle Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality) are gaslit to question whether obstacles to their success are their fault or truly the fault of systemic and hostile racial discrimination. But as we’ve already discussed, the glass ceiling trope is not comprehensive enough to explain the disparities in what women of different races and classes achieve professionally.

Before we talk about solutions, I’ll sum up the real issues women face, beyond the “glass ceiling”.

Number one: The analogy implies that everyone starting on the same level/floor understands exactly what needs to be done to elevate their standing.

It also implies that all the reasons or obstacles standing in the way of women in leadership is universally understood and ubiquitously applicable.

That puts women of color in a position of being described as “not pulling their weight” or forces them to put uncompensated time & effort into their work without being guaranteed the same results as their white peers.

Number two: it prioritizes decorative, performative diversity.

The outcry against police brutality in 2020 led many corporations to rethink their diversity and inclusion practices, and a select few women of color became exceptions to the rule by gaining more executive and C-suite level positions. With more evidence that diversity in leadership leads to better profit margins, we began to see what I call a redecoration of the observation deck in the name of innovation & productivity.

This approach to Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) tends to come from a deficit model, where candidates for these positions are told there are limited seats at the top of leadership hierarchies, pitting marginalized groups with an already unfair competitive advantage against each other.

You then have an over-celebration of “The Firsts” where a handful of women are meant to be symbolic of their entire community and hold the responsibility of being above exceptional to justify their place in the hierarchy.

But what happens to the few women of color who are the Firsts, who finally make it to the top? They arrive in an environment where they feel out of place. A place where they experience imposter syndrome and have to put on their best boss babe face because they’re afraid admitting failure or neediness will disqualify them from the insiders’ club.

It’s also where they deal with microaggressions and discrimination that their white peers don’t have to endure to maintain their position of power.

Let’s talk about the very real health and psychological impacts this causes. Several researchers, two of which are quoted here, point to a history of racism as more than just a literal threat to Black women’s lives. Both the vitriol of the Jim Crow era and the so-called “subtle” microaggressive remarks experienced today are equally harmful to Black women’s long-term health indicators.

Just to be transparent: not everyone is emotionally invested in the well-being of their staff. But whether you personally care or not, the health of your staff directly impacts the health of your balance sheet.

I’ll move away from analogies to make it plainer now: labeling ourselves a feminist and preaching women’s empowerment isn’t enough if the most privileged women make climbing the corporate ladder a miserable experience for women with the least representation in these spaces. If making it to the top professionally means 30x more wealth for one group of women yet a 40% higher chance of chronic stress for another (with less pay), the current feminist movement is not doing enough to ensure all women win.

What are three ways to become more intentional about equitable inclusivity, guaranteeing every woman regardless of her identity the right to become a pioneer in her field?

Number 1 — Representation: If you’re a woman leader and are truly an advocate for other women, create mentorship communities with specific, tangible outcomes.

  • By the end of every term, what is the ratio of Black women executives to white women executives? And how representative is that of the total employed by your company?
  • How many women of color are you recruiting to entry-level positions annually? And what is the specific timeline for coaching them to become executive-level and C-suite team members?

Number 2 — Affirmation: feminist campaigns must work to build affinity across both race and class. We talk about the importance of soft skills a lot in business, but what are some practical ways to exemplify those skills in a way that produces a conducive work environment for all women?

  • One idea is explicit goals for affirmation. Talent management strategies should include systems for positive reinforcement not just based on performance but genuine relationship-building. This doesn’t have to be performative; letting your colleague or mentee know daily that she is valued for who she is and what she can become goes a lot further than throwing a Kwanzaa party or an ethnic food potluck. Ultimately, women who are aspiring pioneers want to know that they are valued both as team assets and human beings.

And Number 3 — Validation:

  • This is as simple as crediting someone for ideas shared…not mining their brains for ideas that you’ll pass off as your own. But what’s even better is adequately compensating (Black) women for when they go above & beyond their explicit professional roles. Consider quarterly or spot-bonuses for the added value women of color provide — for example, in the form of DEI work & consultation on race-related issues.

More resources on this topic:

Beheshti, Naz. “10 Timely Statistics About The Connection Between Employee Engagement And Wellness.” Forbes. Published January 16, 2019.

Frye, Jocelyn. “Valuing Black Women’s Work: A Commitment to Black Women’s Equal Pay Is Essential to the Nation’s Economic Progress.” Center for American Progress. Published August 7, 2018.

Katz, Nikki. “Black Women Are the Most Educated Group in the U.S..” ThoughtCo. Published June 20, 2020.

McGregor, Jena. “How the ‘glass ceiling’ became such a powerful — and problematic — metaphor.” The Washington Post. Published June 9, 2016.

Moss, Emily et al. “The Black-white wealth gap left Black households more vulnerable” Brookings Institution. Published December 8, 2020.

Torino, Gina. “How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health.” Center for Health Journalism, USC Annenberg. Published November 10, 2017.

Zimmer, Ben. “The Phrase ‘Glass Ceiling’ Stretches Back Decades”. The Wall Street Journal. Published April 3, 2015.

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Seun Shokunbi explores stories of women as power brokers in the political and entrepreneurial arenas of Africa & the African diaspora. These are personal essays that show the journey to combining hustler mentality with social activism.

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Seun Shokunbi

Seun Shokunbi

Seun Shokunbi is a past contributor to Face2Face Africa, and a speaker for TEDx. Learn more at www.itsseunshokunbi.com/bio.

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