When Christine Lagarde was nominated by the European Council to be the next president of the European Central Bank, the first woman to hold the position, critics wondered if the move was indicative of the “glass cliff” — the phenomenon in which women seem more likely to be put in charge of an organization at a crisis point. (The E.C.B. is grappling with a sluggish eurozone economy.)
And when Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, was asked in a town hall recently if she was worried about being “Hillary’d” — apparent shorthand for the sexism Hillary Clinton faced in the 2016 election — Warren respond that she would “persist.”
Remember when the blanket term for gender bias was simply “glass ceiling”?
As my colleague Jessica Bennett wrote in a front-page story this week, that term — ever-present in Clinton’s campaigns — seems to be a relic of a different era, replaced by a variety of more nuanced expressions to describe the barriers of race and gender.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old Congresswoman from New York, prefers to “break the table” and “build our own house.”
Ayanna S. Pressley, the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, has noted that women of color candidates face not simply a “glass ceiling” but a “concrete” one — struggling to overcome both racial and gender biases. “Double jeopardy” is another term to describe the double whammy of discrimination black women face. (The term “bamboo ceiling” has been used to refer to the unique challenges Asian-Americans face.)
There is also the “likability trap” to talk about the challenges female leaders face by having to prove they are tough and likable at once. Similarly, a “double-bind” is when women are disliked for being direct and decisive, but are not seen as leaders when nice and nurturing.
And there’s the “motherhood penalty,” for the disadvantages, financial and otherwise, specific to mothers who work outside the home (as relative to their childless peers).
Why is this generation of influential women seeking different language to express themselves?
“Words have their moments, especially colloquialisms,” Robin Lakoff, whose 1975 book, “Language and Woman’s Place,” helped create the field of gender linguistics, told Bennett. “Often, after a word or phrase gets a lot of use, people simply stop using it — because we like to sound original and this one seems tired.”
But perhaps it’s about more than words seeming tired. It’s about a new breed of women choosing terms that better capture the complexity of their experiences.
Recently, Bennett told me she saw Oprah Winfrey speak at a conference about women’s empowerment. “Glass ceiling” was nowhere to be heard, but Winfrey did use phrases like “rock the boat,” “scrap the rules” and “reinventing the game.”
In a political period like no other — with more women in power than ever and a record-breaking number of women seeking the presidency — the game is indeed being reinvented, stride by stride and word by word.
I want to hear from you. What phrases, newer or older, do you rely on to describe the challenges of your identity? Email me at [email protected].
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“A woman in the White House? What if a war were to break out? What if the economy went south? What in the world would she do?”
Those were the questions that apparently gave many Americans pause as the 2000 presidential election approached, according to the columnist Bob Herbert, who wrote a piece for The Times titled (what else?), “Another Glass Ceiling.”
Not even Elizabeth Dole, who considered running, could rally the full support of her husband, Bob, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996.
The public, in general, “puts more stock in a male candidate’s ability to tackle tough issues,” a survey found at the time. “Thus, the tougher the job is perceived to be — and nothing is considered tougher than the presidency — the less likely it is that a woman will get the nod,” Herbert wrote, calling such attitudes “ancient.”
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