The Glass Ceiling: Who Said That?

WkingWomenCover_sm_1_.jpgby Paige Churchman (New York City)

We all talk about the glass ceiling, but do you know when the term began? Or whom we have to thank for it? Take a guess:

A) In 1971, Gloria Steinem coined the term in the premiere issue of Ms. Magazine.

B) Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt used it in a 1986 Wall Street Journal.

C) Family Circle editor Gay Bryant first said it in a 1984 Adweek interview

D) No one knows. Perhaps an unknown woman stuck in middle management in Boston or Toronto or New York said it to a colleague in 1978, and then it spread by word of mouth.

E) None of the above

B is a popular answer on the Web. Even a Forbes story says the term originated in the Wall Street Journal. But keep clicking on those Google results and you’ll find your way to sources that say “glass ceiling” appeared in print two years prior when Gay Bryant said it in the Adweek interview. So answer C is close. But so are answers D and maybe E. Gay Bryant is probably the first to use “the glass ceiling” in print, and she did throw it out there in her Adweek interview. However, the very first time she put those words on paper were on page 19 of her book, The Working Woman Report. In chapter 1, Where We Are, Bryant writes:

Throughout the corporate world—faster in some industries, slower in others—the door to real power for women has opened. But it is just ajar. Women may already be in middle management, but the steps from there up to the senior hierarchy are likely to be slow and painstakingly small. Partly because corporations are structured as pyramids, with many middle managers trying to move up into the few available spots, and partly because of continuing, though more subtle, discrimination, a lot of women are hitting a “glass ceiling” and finding they can rise no further.

But here’s the catch―Bryant doesn’t remember if she made up the term or found it in the piles of the research she did on the book or heard it in from one of the thousands of working women she was tuned into. She wasn’t trying to come up with a catch phrase that would stick for decades. She was trying to pull everything she could about working women into a book. A word Bryant used several times in our meeting at a noisy West Village café was “articulate” as in “a force that needed to be articulated.” She’s not a copywriter or a poet. She is a smart observer who’s really good at picking up on what’s going on, giving it form, and getting it into a medium that people gobble up and talk about.

Some Context

When Gay Bryant (second from the left in the cover photo pictured) wrote that book, women had flooded America’s workforce and were learning to play a whole new game. It was “the single most outstanding social phenomenon of this century,” said the chairman of the President’s Commission for Manpower. Bryant looked back on that time last week over coffee. “It was a wonderful time. There was a need that wasn’t being filled and a community that could be served and articulated by a magazine. It grew into a real force and a voice.”

The magazine was Working Woman. From 1980 to 1983, the years that Bryant served as editor, circulation rose from 176,000 to 605,000. In 1984, Bryant and three other Working Woman staffers published the book that gave us words for what we were banging our hopeful heads against. Then Bryant broke the ceiling she had just christened―she became editor of Family Circle, owned by the New York Times. This was huge. Never before had a woman run one of the “seven sisters,” as the major women’s magazines were called in the industry. All were headed by men…until Bryant, barely in her thirties and with no college degree, broke the barrier. Over the next 25 years, she edited a slew of magazines, most notably Mirabella (“a success d’esteem but a financial disaster”) and Success. Now she’s freelancing and thinking about writing another book “to see what we’ve learned out of all this.”

Inside Gay Bryant

So what kind of person comes up with a catch-phrase that’s so right it sticks for decades and inspires all sorts of other new terms? Some fun facts about the woman who pointed out the glass ceiling:

  • She’s British. Bryant grew up in the remote countryside of northern England. She came to the US in her twenties with a list of friends of friends and a 30-day $99 Greyhound pass in her backpack. She ended up in New York City where “I stayed till there was nothing but ketchup and crackers, and I had to get a job.” She found one at a start-up magazine that took off.
  • Horses Instead of College. Her parents didn’t believe girls needed an education. Her brother went away to school; Gay got riding lessons. “Years later when I went to Australia, the fact that I still have a very ‘good seat’ did wonders for my career as a top media exec in the Murdoch corporation.”
  • Outsider Sensibility. “I have always functioned as an outsider, which is great for a communicator,” she says. She was a Brit in the US, a woman in a man’s world, plus she married an African-American man (the first black journalist hired by Life magazine) and they adopted two African-American children. “I learned from him about being yourself to good effect in a corporate situation and how being an outsider is an asset when you are a manager.”
  • Hey, Kids, Let’s Put on a Show. “I had no concept of career,’ emailed Bryant after our meeting. “I just fell into magazines as something to do that was glam and appealing, then found it utterly absorbing.” She also had a knack (and the moxie) for start-ups. “It was a start-up that took off” she said of several of the madly successful magazines she helped launched. Of course, there were also some that didn’t take off. That’s the nature of start-ups.
  • Strong Mother. Bryant has realized recently that her belief in herself stems from her mother. “She had a glamorous life and her own business, gave that up to volunteer for a rescue mission to Finland and Russia at the beginning of WWII, stood up to authority, risked court martial and then put her stuff aside and pretty much on her own raised four children to be achievers.”
  • Other Firsts. First magazine to employ Gay Bryant―the hip British fashion publication Queen. First magazine Bryant appeared in―Horse & Hound (as a little girl winning a prize). First editor to show Hillary Clinton in pants on the cover of a fashion magazine―Gay Bryant.

What’s It Like?

Gay Bryant doesn’t walk around saying, “I’m the one who made up the term glass ceiling,” because after all she’s not sure that she is and there are so many other distinctions in her career. But sometimes the mother-of-the-glass-ceiling mantle finds her. How does it that feel? “Oh, the best,” she said. Her teenage son’s friends never paid her much attention, but one day one of them came running in, looking at her with unabashed awe. His sociology assignment: Find out where the term “glass ceiling” came from. What name did he uncover? “His friend’s mom from the house where they hang out and play rap music,” said Bryant. “I got a lot of cred for that. Totally cool.”