From the ceiling to the floor

Why are women from less privileged backgrounds always excluded when discussing the glass ceiling?

“Women’s empowerment” has been a buzz phrase for the last two decades. If we think critically about this term, by default it takes us to a place where we can understand that it was born because women have been dis-empowered. Even today it is a very popular term in the development sector. So, what does it really mean?

Jo Rowlands (1997) in her book Questioning Empowerment sees empowerment as “a process whereby women become able to organize themselves to increase their own self-reliance, to assert their independent right, to make choices, and to control resources which will assist in challenging and eliminating their own subordination.” The term that perhaps is one of the most important words in this sentence, if not the most important, is “themselves.”  It is something that must come from within.

However one of the most important facets of women’s empowerment is financial independence. Women have always worked, but here we are particularly talking about waged work. Even a century ago, women weren’t welcome in workplaces. But then the status quo slowly started to change and women started earning more than ever, yet they were earning less than men for doing the same job. 

But times are different now. Women from different socio-economic backgrounds are working in different positions in different fields. These women, coming to workplaces, were breaking down socio-cultural barriers. Although women have entered different sectors, excelling at them, all of them are facing various levels of gender-based discrimination. Even though gender-based discrimination is the reality for every working woman, the situation is different for women from other socio-economic backgrounds. 

In recent times there has been a lot of discussion on the glass ceiling and how it is stopping women from being at the top positions. Statistics show that in the Asia-Pacific region, only 17.1% of CEOs or heads of businesses are women and only 27% of senior management are women. The reason behind these numbers is the patriarchal mindset. Although they face the same consequences, which is not being able to climb the career ladder, the struggles are completely different. Where the glass ceiling represents the situation of women who are in privileged positions in society, the “sticky floor” represents the situation of the women who struggle to even survive.

We tend to forget about them.

The sticky floor is a metaphor to describe a discriminatory employment pattern that keeps workers, especially women, in the lower positions with low to no mobility. In 1992, Catherine Berheide came up with the concept -- sticky floor refers to low-paying jobs, low-prestige jobs, and low-mobility jobs. Women who hold these jobs find themselves stuck in that position with limited opportunities. They cannot find a way to move vertically in their organization. Although the trajectories of women’s work have changed, these are situations that women have to face even now. On the other hand, men start, as well as continue, working uninterrupted, because of the economic realities of present women’s work but they cannot climb the ladder as easily as a man can.

The sticky floor is like gravity, it pulls down women from climbing up the career ladder. There are factors that pull women down. Those factors are established by society or by women themselves.  

An example of the sticky floor is the situation of women workers in the RMG sector of Bangladesh. Women workers in the RMG industry are mostly from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds. Operators are the main workforce who drive the production part of the factory. In Bangladesh, women are mostly operators or helpers as the other positions are taken by men. There is a very limited number of women supervisors and almost no number of assistant production managers or production managers.

When I got the opportunity to talk to women operators at various factories, the reasons they gave behind not being able to climb the career ladder were mostly situations which pulled them down -- such as gender roles in the family, the judgment of society, responsibilities towards children, men not being able to handle female leadership, education, skills. Each of these reasons are strongly connected to the patriarchal mindset embedded in Bangladeshis. 

These subaltern women are a huge chunk of the population, their empowerment is very important for the good of their community and indeed our whole economy. Leaving no one behind is the only way to proceed and progress. So, discussing the sticky floor is as important as discussing the glass ceiling.

 

Simin Ibnat Dharitree is an NGO worker.

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