Glass houses and cliffs | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Glass houses and cliffs

/ 12:24 AM March 10, 2017

“No one encouraged us,” my mother used to tell me, bemoaning how her generation of women had limited options after finishing high school. The pressure was for early marriage and starting a family. For those who dared want to go on to college, it was for a nonprofessional course, to be gotten over with in four—or better, two—years.

My mother was considered bold to go into education—still “feminine” enough but frowned upon for sheltered women of her time. She was an excellent teacher, and is often approached by several generations of former students still calling her “Miss Lim.” But if she had her ifs, my mother would have wanted to go into medicine, which was, sadly, even more of wistful thinking.

That was decades ago. Today, Filipino women outnumber Filipino men in college, and have broken into the last male fortresses of professions like law and medicine. Moreover, women seem to be able to reach ranking positions in professional organizations, hospitals, universities, and the government bureaucracy.

Glass ceilings


“No, we don’t have glass ceilings for women in the Philippines,” I heard a female university official once telling foreign visitors. The term refers to the limited promotions available for a career woman.

To some extent that assertion is true and partly accounts for our high ranking—usually seventh or eighth of more than 100 countries—in the annual Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum. To be clear, our high ranking means we have narrow gender gaps, especially for indicators showing the percentage of women in high government and private sector positions.

But these figures are snapshots, frozen in time, and removed from important contexts. Psychologists point out how our brain can play tricks with these snapshot perceptions, and I see this with gender issues.

I propose that precisely because we still have a gender gap, a woman occupying a ranking position in an institution catches people’s attention, and then leaves an impression that there is no glass ceiling.


Take our University of the Philippines as an example. I will admit I also inadvertently contribute to creating distortions in people’s perceptions by “boasting” that we have many women in ranking posts. For instance, I like mentioning that we’ve had three consecutive women deans for the College of Engineering, traditionally considered a male bastion. I’ve had to remind myself that when I point that out, I should not forget to mention that the deanship of engineering first went to a woman, Rowena Guevara, only in 2004, after 94 years of existence.

We could go on and on with the women in high government positions, including members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the president and vice president.  We certainly have bragging rights, and can point out that the United States, after 241 years, seems trumped not to ever have a woman president while Filipinos have had two.


There’s another important omission in many of the surveys: the differences in “high” positions that are assumed. Preparing for a recent academic conference on gender and the academe, I looked at the gender patterns for some of the administrative posts in UP across time and noted a pyramid: Women are becoming deans in fairly large numbers but as you go up the hierarchy, you find fewer women. The glass ceilings continue to exist.

Glass floors

Not only that. I also find that women will outnumber men for posts that require much more meticulous work—for example, accounting or human relations.

Which leads me to propose that if there are glass ceilings, there are also glass floors, meaning for women to go up a hierarchy, they have to tread slowly, carefully, even quietly.  In so many words, the status quo has to be maintained, and women are socialized, as early as childhood, into this role.

It’s still stereotyped gender expectations at work: While men are promoted for “leadership” (read: assertiveness, even aggressiveness), women go up the corporate ladder more quickly, maybe make it to the C-suite (chief finance, chief operating, chief whatever) IF they are efficient and compliant. I’ve actually heard it at executive meetings: “Oh, yes, she’s good, gets things done” for female candidates, and “He’s strong, he’s firm” for male candidates.

This is not to pit “efficiency and compliance” against “strength and firmness.” Ideally, people at the top should have all these characteristics, but what happens is that now we have a dichotomy: “administrators” (better if women) versus “executives” (better if men).

I know that some of you are now thinking, with glass ceilings and glass floors, why not make it an entire glass house, and the advice: People who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others. This axiom, put simply, warns people about their vulnerabilities, which can be really complicated if you are a woman, or if you come from a minority group.  Again, be compliant and keep the status quo.

Which takes us to still another metaphor: glass cliffs (sometimes, even more dramatically, glass precipices).  The term was one of the leading “candidates” for Oxford’s word of the year but it lost to “post-truth.”

Glass cliffs/precipices describe the situation of people who are able to get past the glass ceiling but then confront a greater risk of failure in their high position because people’s prejudices still remain, making them quick to find fault and to demand that a person step down. You see this in politics all the time, such as in the case of South Korea’s recently impeached woman president. (This is not to condone what she did, but the criticism against her somehow attributed her weakness to her being a woman. Something similar happened to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo—the “babae kasi” argument.

We see the glass cliff as well in Hillary Clinton’s rise in politics, then the precipitous fall in the last US presidential election.  The contrast could not have been more blatant, in the way people overlooked Donald Trump’s “manly” mistakes but saw weakness in Clinton, even in her strength. (“Women should not be too aggressive.”)

Glass ceilings, glass floors, glass precipices, maybe even Cinderella and her glass shoe. It’s the prince who looks for the one whose foot will fit the shoe. Don’t apply, don’t call. We’ll contact you.

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TAGS: gender gap, Inquirer Opinion, Michael L. Tan, Pinoy Kasi

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