When Hillary Clinton failed in her bid to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008, which would have paved the way for her to break the highest glass ceiling of all, she said there were, nevertheless, “about 18 million cracks in it”. Here was a woman who had come so close to smashing through not just any glass ceiling but the reinforced shatter-proof version: we’d have had a first-ever woman in the White House and a suspension of the horrific honorific of “First Lady”. This was the finest moment of Clinton’s campaign, a message of hope that has resurfaced as she stands poised to run in 2016.
But are women too hung up on the concept of the glass ceiling? We are taught from an early age that it exists, hovering over us and taunting us with the promise on the other side of stratospheric success, but it is always holding us down. I was told about it at school (in the 1980s) by a female English teacher in a resentful, defeatist way, as if the glass ceiling were there forever and there was nothing we could do about it.
Now there is an alternative, more positive narrative. Nemat Shafik, a leading economist and Egyptian-born mother of twins, has just been made deputy governor of the Bank of England, only the second woman to have been appointed. She says the metaphor of the glass ceiling is a bad one because there isn’t an invisible barrier that suddenly disappears once it is smashed by one hugely successful woman like Clinton.
Instead, Shafik says, women and girls should not look up to a glass ceiling but switch their gaze straight ahead to a “sticky door” which is blocking women from breaking through. It helps if there are allies on the other side pulling the handle too, she adds, acknowledging that the lucky break counts for a lot. But it is not everything – it’s mainly up to women to put their shoulders to the door and give it a hard shove.
In a way, Shafik’s approach to career progression is similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s call to “lean in”, which argues that women should take it on themselves to push ahead and be more ambitious, rather than accepting that there is a glass ceiling. Yet leaning in is all about a woman’s own ambition, or lack of it, and does not recognise that there is still a barrier. Shafik’s message says it is down to women to be more proactive – but recognises there is still a door barring our way.
It also sounds more rooted in experience than the message offered by Sandberg, who has more of a detached air about her. Shafik’s life story, as someone who fled with her family from General Nasser’s regime in 1960s Egypt to academic brilliance in the United States and senior positions at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Department for International Development, is a compelling one: from adversity to power, and a shoved door in between. She had been a deputy managing director at the IMF for a matter of weeks when its chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested over sexual assault allegations. Shafik calmly guided the organisation through the ensuing crisis.
In Parliament and in the professions, women remain in the minority – generally there is one woman for every four men. It is right to carry on complaining about this ratio. But accepting that the glass ceiling exists is like accepting that nothing will ever change. It would be too simplistic to argue that all women can follow in Shafik’s footsteps simply by pushing on the sticky door. We should hope that now she is on the other side she will hold open the door to other women too. But her appointment to the Bank of England, and the prospect of her becoming the first female governor, shows that women should forget about the glass ceiling, and aim higher.
OK, grey squirrels – we surrender
One of the white lies my parents told me and my sisters in childhood was that the only way to get to our nearest beach – in Formby, Merseyside – was to first walk for nearly an hour through pinewoods. They didn’t tell us we could have gone one stop further on the train and got there in minutes. But by going the long way, we were able to linger to watch a colony of red squirrels – one of the last in the UK – at close hand.
As I think back to those walks, it is depressing to learn that the Government has admitted defeat in its battle with the American grey squirrel, which are blamed for all but extinguishing red squirrels from this country. People will no longer be required to report one of these animals on their land. Ministers say the greys are so ubiquitous that no one ever bothers to report them. Sometimes we have to bow to nature and allow the survival of the fittest. But it feels like a sad moment nevertheless.