Having recovered slightly from all the excitement of last week and the inauguration of President Obama and Mrs Obama’s dress, I still feel optimistic. As the theme of this month’s blog is feminism, I want to write about how optimism and positive thinking is related to the ‘glass ceiling’.
I am a working class woman from Oldham, a medium sized town in the North West of England. I was brought up in a way that encouraged me to focus on academic matters as my parents had aspirations of my becoming a teacher. I had a baby when I was sixteen, my beloved daughter Michelle, and another baby at nineteen, my lovely Victoria. I also had my dear son, Anthony, at twenty seven. I was totally unprepared for parenthood but I knew a lot about Pythagoras, maths and physics.
I was so desperate to survive, as a single parent, that I pushed myself with only 6 O Levels through the route to Chartered Accountant. I never missed a beat, ignoring the accusations that I ‘farmed out’ my children so I could enjoy a day in the office. The truth was that one day I had arrived at the local co-op with 15p for a loaf of bread. It had gone up a penny and I went hungry until the next day when I received my income support. I have had a job ever since that day.
I recognised early that the workplace was unequal, the men were managers and women clerks. Even so, I worked my way up to management through sheer hard work. I deflected the sexist remarks and barely disguised innuendo and ploughed through, arming myself with a quiet determination and a self-designed learning system. I spent my evenings when my children were in bed reading and drinking in what others had to say, my mind was open and I developed a strong positive base.
As the years moved on and childcare became better, I was able to study to be a psychologist, first with the Open University than with Manchester Metropolitan to do my PhD.
The day that I enrolled for my PhD I thought I was the luckiest person on earth. I had endured all kinds of unpleasantness both personal and professional to get to this place and I was thrilled. In time I realised that it was hard work and desperation that had enabled me to wing my way through the education system and raise myself through the glass ceiling in the workplace to Chief Executive.
All was well until my Viva. I had spent most of my life waiting for that day and it was to be my final accolade, the pay off. During the Viva someone commented on my reflexivity chapter of my thesis, saying that, “I insisted on telling a Billy Elliot style rags to riches story.” When I protested and argued that it was true, I had actually clawed my way through to be able to sit in that room, the reply was that it couldn’t possibly be or I wouldn’t be sitting in the ivory tower of academia. That way of life, that ability to think, that just wasn’t for the person I claimed to be.
So, even though I smashed my way through the reinforced plate glass ceiling, elevating myself on a level with the people I most admired, fair minded academics who I was sure would never make unfair judgements, I still found someone who would refuse to admit that this Northern lass, a single parent with the broad accent, was able to do what I had done.
I got my PhD and in the famous words of Bachman Turner Overdrive – you ain’t seen nothin yet! The main quality involved in scaling the dizzy heights is persistence. Also hard work and structured knowledge. Similar qualities are needed when it comes to writing and publishing a novel.
Even above the glass ceiling there’s always going to be someone who wants to take a pot shot, no matter how high you climb. However, the more you learn the more you realise that you know less. The more critique you receive, the thicker your skin grows in the knowledge that the critique is about your work, which is merely one facet of you, and that it is not personal. So I’m still that working class single parent with the broad accent, it’s just that now I can operate on several levels, both above and below the glass ceiling – a perfect vantage point to observe the characters and plots that pepper life with such variety, and to understand how our complex identities are created.
I just submitted my novel, Life: Immaterial, written from this perspective. I’ll keep on and on until I succeed. I want to contribute, to do good, to work on my own initiative to operate in a team. I can plan and strategise, research and analyse, write and edit. I can apply what I have learned for the good of others.
I have written this piece not as a boast or a bag, but to point out that with hard work and determination it is possible for working class women to break through the glass ceiling.
I did it because I am an optimist!