Erik Olin Wright

on Tuesday, 22 May 2012. Posted in Leadership Interviews, Interviews about the Glass Ceiling

Erik Olin Wright

Erik Olin Wright is Vilas professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was born in Berkeley, California, in 1947 and grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where both of his parents were professors at the University of Kansas. After completing his undergraduate degree at Harvard University in 1968 he did a second undergraduate degree in history at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1970, to avoid being drafted into the army during the Vietnam War, he enrolled in a Unitarian Seminary in California, during which time he also worked as an intern chaplain at San Quentin Prison. His first book, The Politics of Punishment, came out of that experience. When, in 1971, the draft law changed to a lottery (and he got a good number), he began graduate school in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. After completing his PhD in 1976 he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he has been ever since. His research has mainly concerned comparative class analysis and problems of rethinking the foundations of contemporary Marxist theory. His most recent books are Reconstructing Marxism: essays on Explanation and the Theory of History, with Elliott Sober and Andrew Levine (Verso, 1992), Interrogating Inequality (London: Verso, 1994), and Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2000). He is also director of the Real Utopias Project and general editor of the book series published by Verso connected to that project. The next book in the project, co-authored with Archon Fung, is Deepening Democracy: innovations in empowered participatory governance (forthcoming, 2003).  In 1995 Professor co-authored a Study with Dr Janeen Baxter from Queensland University. 

To see Professor Wright and Dr Janeen Baxter's Study, The Glass Ceiling Hypothesis - A Comparative Study of the United States, Sweden and Australia  (The American Sociological Review, June, 1995) see:

Interview with Professor Wright

In your Study, The Glass Ceiling Hypothesis - A  Comparative Study of the United States, Sweden and Australia, you conclude that, "Claims about the existence of a glass ceiling are quite vulnerable to observational misperceptions. The very low representation of women at the top of authority hierarchies may create an appearance of a glass ceiling -a concentrated structure of impediments to promotion at the higher levels of organization-where in fact discrimination is either more or less constant throughout the organization or even concentrated at the bottom."  

Do you believe that this is indicative of such discrimination being systematic?  

My research on the glass ceiling with Janeen Baxter was concerned with one very specific issue: is the metaphor of a “glass ceiling” the best way of understanding the presence of systematic obstacles faced by women in managerial hierarchies. The expression “glass ceiling” is a popular metaphor in discussions about gender discrimination, but it is often used in a quite vague way as a label for any kind of discrimination within workplaces. We felt that the term should be given greater precision. Let me explain this by describing four different scenarios, each of which involve significant obstacles to promotion faced by women, but which have quite different implications: 

i.                    there are severe obstacles to women getting to the bottom rung of a managerial hierarchy, but once they get to that level, they face no further gendered impediments to promotion: their chances of promotion to each subsequent level are the same as for men. 

ii.                   At every level of a hierarchy women face discrimination in getting promoted, but the degree of this discrimination is fairly constant at all levels: men find it easier to get promoted than women at every level, but this gap in promotion possibilities is constant. 

iii.                  The obstacles women face to promotion are relatively weak at the very bottom of organizations, but get steadily more severe as you move to the top of the organization: there is a steady increase in the intensity of discrimination. 

iv.                 Obstacles to the promotion of women are present throughout the organization, but at some point they become an absolute barrier: women cannot get promoted beyond that point. 

Now, scenario iv is the strictest illustration of a glass ceiling, for the metaphor suggests an absolute barrier, an invisible obstruction to further promotion beyond which women cannot pass. The metaphor suggests that women can get “through the door” (i.e. into a promotion ladder), but that there is a point beyond which they cannot move. Scenario iii, we argued, is not strictly speaking a situation with a full-blown “ceiling” – since promotions are possible, if difficult,  at the top of the organization – but it is nevertheless a pattern of discrimination which shares a basic feature with the glass ceiling, namely that the obstacles to promotion intensify at higher levels of the organization. Scenarios i and ii, on the other hand, do not display this characteristic. We argued that these two patterns – either obstacles concentrated at the bottom of organization or constant discrimination up and down the organization, should not be referred to as a “glass ceiling”. 

Why does this matter? Well, if discrimination against women becoming managers is concentrated at the “ports of entry” to managerial hierarchies rather than at the top, then public policy and social pressure should be directed more to opening up the bottom of hierarchies than the problem of the top of authority ladders. After all, even if discrimination does exist against women at the top of organizations, this affects many fewer women than discrimination at the bottom of organizations. If, on the other hand, the battle against discrimination has been largely won at the bottom, but real barriers exist at the middle or top of organizations – the imagery of the glass ceiling – then political attention should be directed at that level of organizations. 

So, what did we find? Our main finding is that while we found strong evidence that promotions into and up managerial hierarchies is more difficult for women than for men, there was really no systematic evidence that these obstacles are concentrated at the upper levels of organizations. That is, if a woman makes it to middle levels of management, she may still face some discrimination in moving to top management, but those obstacles – the intensity of that discrimination – is not more intense than the discrimination she faced getting to middle management. And, at least in some countries in our study, if anything the evidence suggested that discrimination is sharper at the bottom of hierarchies than at the top. 

To what main factors do you attribute the existence of this discrimination to and does it differ for each country? 

Our research was less concerned with diagnosing the specific causes of discrimination, than in identifying the pattern of discrimination. We were able to show that discrimination exists even after you “control for” a variety of attributes of employees. For example, it could be that one of the reasons women have a harder time being promoted up managerial hierarchies then men is that they have less labor market experience (if, for example, they took time off to have children). So, to check out this possibility, we compared men and women with the same levels of labor market experience and found that this made very little difference in the “gender gap in authority” (i.e. in the relative chances of being promoted up hierarchies). In fact, even if we control in this way a whole host of qualities, it turns out that the gender gap in authority remains large and significant. While this does not enable us to say precisely what is the cause of the disadvantages women face in promotion, we can say with some confidence that at least part of the explanation is probably active discrimination within the workplace, not simply the attributes of women seeking promotion. 

From your research what have you found to be the effects of the Glass Ceiling on women and what strategies do women employ to overcome it? 

As I said, we did not find strong evidence for the existence of a “glass ceiling” in the precise sense we are using the term. What we have found is discrimination against women in authority structures. The main “effect” of this is simply that women are much less likely than men to get into managerial positions and rise to the more powerful and responsible positions within those hierarchies. 

In terms of the strategies for combating this discrimination, our evidence suggests that the discrimination is weakest in those countries, such as the United States, in which there exists what we called a “liberal rights” approach to the problem of women’s position in the labor force. In more social democratic countries, such as Sweden and Norway, the women’s movement has been more concerned with the state provision of nonmarket services – such as publicly funded childcare and state mandated funded parental leaves – that are of particular interest to women, rather than their rights within work. Liberal democratic societies such as the United States see the problem of gender discrimination as a civil rights issue, and as a result the struggle against such discrimination has centered on anti-discrimination laws and court cases. It appears that this has been more effective in reducing the gender gap in authority than focus on state services in the social democratic political settings. Indeed, it may even be that such progressive policies as paid parental leaves which are certainly desirable from an egalitarian point of view, may actually contribute indirectly to intensifying workplace discrimination: employers may be even more reluctant to promote women into positions of power and responsibility knowing that the women have a legally-enforceable right to take considerable time off from work when they have a baby. 

Do men experience barriers that are comparable to the Glass Ceiling?  

The whole idea of the glass ceiling is about the gender gap in authority, so in one sense it doesn’t make sense to ask if men face similar barriers. If they did, then no one could get promoted! We suspect – but do not have data to support this -- that men who take significant responsibility for raising children probably share some of the same disadvantages of women. At least some of the discrimination probably operates through the ways in which successful careers in high pressure managerial settings require fanatical devotion to work and extremely long hours, which at least some men are unable to do because of family obligations. Still, we do not have direct data on this. 

What policies and programs do you believe are needed at a political and organisational level to eradicate such a barrier?

Here I am speaking less on the basis of my specific research than on the basis of a general understanding of the process of discrimination. To eliminate workplace discrimination I think it is essential that women have enforceable rights against discrimination and that there be procedures in place through which they can challenge acts of discrimination. This is a tricky issue, because – needless to say – in any genuinely fair regime of promotion there will be some women who do not get promoted for good reasons, and the existence of serious, enforceable anti-discrimination rules provides people in such cases with weapons to challenge denial of promotion even when no discrimination occurred. My feeling is that this is simply the cost that needs to be paid in a period in which discrimination remains a reality and needs to be combated. 

Beyond enforceable antidiscrimination rights, a more profound issue is the problem of reorganization of work itself so that the actual competitive environment and demands of work do not disadvantage people who seek a balance between worklife and familylife. This is a tough problem because such competitiveness is an essential part of the way capitalist economies work, and one might argue that it is fair that people who are prepared to be monomaniacs about work should get ahead more rapidly and move further than those who want more balance. This would not be such an issue if it were the case that men and women had equal probabilities of choosing such balance. Given the continuing gendered character of childrearing and domestic responsibilities, the problem of work demands constrains the work life of women more than men, and thus becomes a problem of gender disadvantage rather than simply generic disadvantage for people who give weight to family life. 

There seem to be two choices here: 

a)      policies can be introduced which may encourage, however haltingly, that men become equally involved in domestic labor and childrearing, and thus erode the gendered character of the career disadvantages of people engaged with children. For example, if in paid parental leaves rules men were paid a higher proportion of their wages than women this would create incentives for men rather than women to interrupt their careers for children. This may seem like a bizarre suggestion, since feminists have struggled for so long for parity for women in things like pay and benefits, but in this specific case if one wants to create an incentive for men to adopt traditionally female roles, then a kind of “affirmative action” policy for male domestic work may be required. 

b)       workplaces can be modified in ways that reduce the trade-off between careerism and family concerns. For example if childcare services were provided within workplaces it would be easier for women with young children to cope with the trade-offs. Or rules against overtime work could be imposed on all people in a workplace thus blocking the ability of men to benefit from the fact that it is harder for women to perform such work. 

The policies under (b) are likely to be of very limited effectiveness in most high-powered career settings simply because of the broader competitive environment of the capitalist economy would penalize firms which managed to eliminate the advantages of excessive work pressure. Therefore, policies to eliminate differential advantages of men over women that cannot be dealt with through antidiscrimination rights probably have to focus on broader societal changes in gender roles and expectations. 

Do you consider the United States to have made much progress in eliminating the Glass Ceiling since the Glass Ceiling Commission of 1991? 

I do not have specific data on what happened in the course of the 1990s in the US. What I do know is that in the job expansion of the 1990s relative to men, women – especially white women – in the US disproportionately filled jobs in the top tiers of the economy. That is: job expansion at the top of the employment distribution was disproportionately filled by women. This does not mean, however, than the obstacles to vertical promotions up authority hierarchies declined. It just means that the expansion of new jobs at the top were disproportionately filled by women. 

How did you become interested in the Glass Ceiling phenomena?  

These analyses grew out of my broader interest in problem of class structure and class inequality. One of the central themes of that work, reported in my book Class Counts, concerns the relationship between class and gender. The problem of the gender gap in authority is one of the interesting problems centering on this relationship. 

What advice would you give to women who encounter barriers that make it difficult for them to gain promotions at various organisational levels? 

I am not sure what the best strategy for individual women might be in general, since this would depend so much on the broader legal and administrative context of the problem.