How ‘The Glass Ceiling’ Became a Mega-Metaphor

Everybody knows what ‘the glass ceiling’ is: the invisible but real barrier between rising women and executive positions.

That you don’t need that phrase defined proves the power of a metaphor that taps into a deep trend accompanied by deep emotions.  Powerful metaphors are more than snappy turns of speech. They reach deep into the zeitgeist to crystallize how people feel. That’s what makes them memorable — and more:  “the glass ceiling” defines a widespread problem that affects success and economic wellbeing for millions of women.

A recent New York Times magazine feature on innovation helpfully explains who coined ‘the glass ceiling,’ and why. As a human resources manager at a large company in 1978, Marilyn Loden saw the statistics that summarized who got promoted, and who didn’t.  While participating in a panel discussion about workplace advancement titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” she suddenly paired her longstanding observation that women hit a ceiling with the imagery of glass.

It was an inspiration that defined not just the current situation of baby boomer women who aspired to leadership, but also the submerged organizational culture and structures that blocked those aspirations.

Here’s why ‘the glass ceiling’ works:

  • It is a juxtaposition of two familiar items — glass and ceiling — in an unexpected way. Everybody knows what glass is and everybody knows what a ceiling is, so it’s easy for them to envision a glass ceiling.
  • It is easy to build on the image. How many times have you read the phrase “cracks in the glass ceiling?” An entire online newsletter, The Glass Hammer, references the glass ceiling without mentioning it.
  • Share it. Loden’s inspiration happened in the moment, in front of an audience. She didn’t try to control it or copyright it or own it. If you coin a moneymaker, its influence (and yours) will grow only when others use it.

Short, relatable and easy to use: that’s how ‘the glass ceiling’ became a meta-metaphor.


New Old Rules for the Interview Road

Is it ok to request or require that a pre-publication review of a story before conducting a media interview?

It used to be that only amateurs asked: the answer from any credible news outlet would be ‘no.’ Newspapers, magazines and broadcast news journalists did not, as a matter of policy, allow sources to review quotes or stories for approval. (Though it has been standard for reporters to read back direct quotes or clarify technical or contradictory information.)

Then journalists started to trade away their power for access to well-placed sources, as reported today in the New York Times. The rules got fuzzy. Understandably, sources took as much leeway as reporters would allow. It was no longer the mark of an unsophisticated source to ask for quote approval.

Now, the old rules are back in place: don’t ask, because they won’t tell. To quote the Times’ memo:  “So starting now, we want to draw a clear line on this. Citing Times policy, reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit.”

The Times’ stance gives other publications permission and backbone to firm up their own no-review policies. Always clarify the “rules of the road” before you start an interview…even if you have been interviewed in the past by that journalist.

VC’s Invest in Conversation

They might be late to the party, but venture capitalists are determined to make the most of their newfound appreciation for working with the media.

Historically, VC’s  have preferred to wield their influence and spend their millions quietly in the background. But according to the New York Times, the success of Andreessen Horowitz has been an eye-opener. Great deals pivot not just on who has the most money to shell out, but also on who has the greatest reach and clout. Reach and clout are amplified by reputation. And reputation doesn’t exist in a vacuum. 

Here is some Media Skills advice for publicity-hungry VC’s:

Explain it to your grandma. Short, sweet, and simple: that’s how to explain your point of view to the public without being condescending.  

Work against type. The public doesn’t think that you’re called a ‘vulture capitalist’ for nothing.  Infuse your messaging with mission and show how your investment priorities make the world a better place for everyone.  You’ll be memorable and believable.

Get everyone on the same page.  The firms you invest in, your staff and your communication advisors: get everyone on board with the same methodology for identifying, framing and delivering messages. That will streamline your messaging and conversations and ensure productive collaboration.