Dissolving Glass Ceilings

The importance of entrepreneurship in equality

Photograph by LoveTheWind

Speech given by Jane Jacobs at the Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Awards, Metro Toronto Convention Centre on October 29, 1994.

I want to begin by touching briefly on the phenomenon of the glass ceiling—the ceiling that, as we all know, seems to obstruct women from reaching our gender’s share of top posi­tions in business. Objectively speaking, that share ought to be somewhere around 50 percent. It is closer to only a tenth of that.

These wretched statistics are connected with entrepreneurship. Any entrepreneur who establishes an enterprise is, at least for the time being, its proprietor. And by definition, proprietors of businesses occupy top positions there. No glass ceiling there, for them.

Most existing businesses in our country are run by males, no matter what the enterprise’s origins or its industry’s early his­tory may be.

Women are not the only people frustrated by glass ceilings. Historically in North America, there have been obdurate glass ceilings for people who belonged to religious minorities, like Jews, or to Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, or African races, or to some other ethnic groups such as Italians, Catholic Irish or, in Canada, French Canadians.

For some groups the glass barrier has now dissolved, at least very appreciably; for some it has begun dissolving; and for some the ceiling remains paralyzingly obdurate.

When the ceiling does dissolve it does not do so because of wishing. It does not do so because legislation says it must. It does not do so because writers like me say it doesn’t make sense. No; it dissolves because members of this or that group which couldn’t breach the glass ceiling have taken to becoming propri­etors of their own businesses, made successes of them, and con­tinued to run them as they developed and grew. This is the significant avenue by which people in former out-groups are recognized as people of ability and merit, and are promoted as a matter-of-course on qualifications and merit. If no successful entrepreneurs and proprietors emerge in a given group, or very few—for whatever reason—members of that whole group re­main stuck in middle management at best. Often enough, although they may resent it, they even accept that that is where they belong.

It is the same with members of our group, our gender. Few women both founded their own businesses and then saw to it that women continued to run them as they grew and developed, whether modestly or spectacularly.

This is odd because great numbers of women are natural entrepreneurs and probably always have been. Commercial cards and announcements that business people used in sixteenth and seventeenth [century] England included surprising numbers and varieties is­sued by businesswomen. They were proprietors in occupations such as importing and supplying other enterprises with fuel, let alone the more expectable dressmaking and purveying house furnishings.

Look at a market in an under-developed economy and no­tice how many of the stalls are presided over by women. Less visible, but just as real, are African and Caribbean women who are resourceful long-distance merchants in their economies, overwhelmingly more so than the men in their societies.

In Latin America, bankers who make micro-loans to small business enterprises have consistently found that well over half their borrowers are businesswomen, and that the proportion is growing.

A public service advertisement that repeatedly appears in the Globe and Mail encourages help from Canadian business people to foreign micro-entrepreneurs by making surplus and obsolete equipment available to them. The ad is adorned with an enthusiastic Latino man who is saying, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” I do not mean to carp at such admirable endeavors, but if the Globe and Mail were reflecting what is really happening out there, it would instead be running the pic­ture of a woman saying, “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job.” But then, after all, the Globe and Mail is directing its ap­peal to Canadian business executives and for that purpose it has probably chosen the right gender, both to make this program believable to them, and to avoid its ad becoming a target of snide double-entendres. Alas on both counts.

The larger and more successful today’s micro-lending prgrams are, the greater the proportion, as well as the absolute number of women entrepreneurs they serve. In Canada this has been happening with Native American programs.

The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh began lending to male micro-entrepreneurs without even contemplating that it would serve women. But in about fifteen years, during which that bank proliferated into some 900 branches, providing busi­ness credit to about 900,000 borrowers, the proportion of women borrowers swelled to 90 percent. That was two years ago. Now, I hear, the percentage of women borrowers hovers around 95 and 96 percent. All the more amazing because Ban­gladesh is a Muslim country in which the first women borrowers had to be extraordinarily brave and daring. The bank does not discriminate against men. It is just that poor women have been taking more naturally and swiftly to entrepreneurship than men there.

To understand how that could be, one thing to ponder is that the human race has typically organized itself so that women have had certain traditional duties and men have had others. Women’s traditional work, from away back, not only included feeding and other care of small children, but also most food preparation and serving; spinning, weaving, dyeing, and sewing cloth garments; leather tanning and making leather garments; contriving bedding and other home comforts; laundering, cleaning and improvising necessary equipment for that work; midwifery and nursing the sick; fire tending and fuel gathering; basket making; water carrying; preparing cosmetics . . . the list could go on and on.

The nursery rhyme says:

Curly locks, curly locks, wilt thou be mine;
Thou shalt not wash the dishes nor yet feed the swine.
(obviously both women’s work)
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam
(more women’s work)
And feed upon strawberries, sugar and cream.

The cushion was a product of women’s work, the cream was handled by a dairy-maid, and the strawberries were likely picked and hulled by women and children. The sugar may have been produced by slaves, both men and women.

In sum, most kinds of material production for everyday life was traditionally women’s work. The greatest ranges of work, and therefore the greatest variety of skills, were in women’s hands.

Men’s traditional work included hunting, along with skin­ning and butchering or fleecing animals, herding relatively large animals such as cattle and sheep, waging war and conducting other military work, collecting taxes, making and enforcing laws, supervising religions, sea-faring, quarrying stone, con­structing with stone and heavy wood, and mining and metal work.

Although the work of collecting taxes and legislating bur­geoned and warfare is obviously still much with us, much of the traditional male work has dwindled wherever economies have developed significantly. This is especially true as far as the traditional male economic contributions to everyday life are con­cerned. Hunting has become of little economic importance, taken in the whole. Animal herding uses few workers, taken in the whole. Stone, heavy wood and even metals count for smaller proportions of the materials we draw on now than they used to. In the meantime commercial derivatives and off-shoots of traditional women’s work have proliferated.

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he said, “Because that’s where the money is.” When we ask why so many micro-entrepreneurs in Bangladesh or Bolivia are women, it’s because that’s where the work is.

An economy like our own includes, by now, almost incom­prehensibly vast amounts and varieties of traditional women’s work and its derivatives, such as commercial food processing, preserving and preparation; textile and apparel industries; manufactured soap and all other appurtenances of laundering and cleaning; cosmetic industries; pharmaceutical corporations which are the direct derivatives of patent medicine companies which were direct offshoots from women’s herbal concoctions initially put into commerce by women. Etcetera. Etcetera.

Suppose, hypothetically, that all the men in economically advanced societies like ours were suddenly to be deprived of everything but traditional men’s work and its offshoots. No work for men making advertisements for cold remedies. No more work for lawyers who depend on corporate clients doing baking, cheese-making, canning, detergents. No French chefs and Savile Row tailors. No salesmen of sewing machines, re­frigerators, hospital sterilizers. Even no work for manufacturers of metal or high-tech fiber cables because cables of all kinds de­rived from strings, then rope, and strings, like baskets and straw mats were traditionally women’s products.

We can be glad that traditional women’s work and its mod­ern offshoots have assimilated so many men because otherwise such vast numbers of men would be economically redundant—just like so many men in badly underdeveloped economies who don’t pull their weight economically while, at the same time, women there are busy, busy, busy.

I am not being far-fetched when I point out that instances of women’s work emerging into commercial life speak loudly and insistently to us of businesswomen. Men typically shun women’s work until it has shown it can be commercially lucrative, hence respectable. So in the nature of things women, not men, have had to initiate the process. To put the matter symbolically, few men anywhere go in for washing baby diapers by hand at home, and if they do they don’t bruit it about. But men don’t draw back from making pick-ups and deliveries for a com­mercial diaper service, or taking employ­ment in a firm manufacturing disposable diapers. These jobs derive distantly from the work of women who long ago began earning money by taking in dirty laundry from the public.

If women naturally and readily take to entrepreneurship, and also have taken initiatives in converting unpaid household work into commercial life, we must ask: How come men have so often replaced those women as commercial proprietors? How did a glass ceiling in economic life ever manage to form and frustrate our gender?

The first men to be assimilated into women’s micro-enterprises tend to be family members. To take one illustrative example, a poor woman in La Paz, Bolivia, took to making metal window and door frames that other people could afford.

She sold them part-time in a market stall. The first males assimilated were her two sons. Thanks to her membership in a women’s borrowing circle, she was able to purchase increasingly large quantities of material, rent a store and workshop, plan ma­chinery purchases, and contemplate hiring an employee. At this point her husband, who was working hundreds of miles away on a construction project, returned home to join the enterprise too.

Similarly, the first Italian restaurants in Rochester, New York, typically began like this. A wife and mother started earn­ing money in her own kitchen by feeding Italian men who were unmarried or whose wives had not yet emigrated to join them. Typically, the point when the husband was assimilated into that work was when he was laid off his job. Rochester happens to have had a historian who was interested in how the early restau­rants there evolved, and looked into their origins. No doubt much the same sequence happened repeatedly in many cities. A different example of this common initial male assimilation process is the Maidenform Brassiere Company, which was founded by two women in their dressmaking shop. After they got the company established and it looked to be successful, their husbands quit their jobs to join the business as sales and production executives.

I am not arguing—and I emphasize this—that men should not be assimilated into companies founded by women, but just that when they are it doesn’t necessarily follow that women should lose proprietorship.

Nor am I arguing that entrepreneurial women should be so narrow as to cleave to sources within traditional women’s work.

That needs emphasizing too. In our society by now all manner of occupations have become appropriate, whether derived from women’s work, from men’s, or are new under the sun.

The point to which I have been leading is this: It is weird that men should acquire monopolies or near-monopolies of proprietorship, even over businesses established by women.

In former days, when people tended regularly to call compa­nies after themselves, names like Joseph Brown & Son or Wilson Bros. were common. Josephine Brown and Daughter, or Wil­son Sisters, are quite as logical, and symbolically speaking, abso­lutely necessary now.

It isn’t enough for businesswomen to establish successful companies, vital though that is. Still another step is needed. Women entrepreneurs can consciously seek, test and encourage daughters, sisters, or unrelated women able to share top respon­sibilities with them as the enterprise develops and grows, whether the growth is modest or spectacular.

Otherwise, it means that when women take one step for­ward in economic life, they partially cancel it with one step back, in spite of all the natural advantages women possess for commercial life. Historically there have been all kinds of good reasons along with bad reasons, for such a limping sort of eco­nomic progress. But today there are no good reasons for it—certainly not in our place nor in our time.

It will still take a while to dissolve the glass ceilings. But I have seen how rapidly you and other women like you have rid­den a new wave of proprietorship by women. It is one of the great changes that has occurred in my lifetime. If you don’t give away the shop once you’ve started it, in your lifetimes you will see how rapidly the glass ceiling dissolves.

Excerpted from Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. Copyright © 2016 by The Estate of Jane Jacobs. Excerpted with permission from Random House Canada, an imprint of RH Canadian Publishing., a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs (1916–2006) is the author of many books including The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Dark Age Ahead.