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Glass Ceilings and Sticky Floors: Women’s Advancement at all Levels

Glass Ceilings and Sticky Floors: Women’s Advancement at all Levels

Reflection on 40 Years Rhodes Women Intergeneration Lunch on 28th of October at Rhodes House

With the 40th Anniversary Conference inaugurating Rhodes Women’s endeavours for 2017-2018, the Scholar-led community recently hosted an intergenerational lunch hosted at Rhodes House. In recognising the value of mentorship, solidarity and conversations across spaces and time during the Anniversary Weekend, the lunch sought to continue those explorations in informal ways. It was also envisaged as an opportunity for the 40th Class of Women Rhodes Scholars (2017) to participate in and carry forward the Anniversary weekend’s successes and contemplations.

Jennifer Robinson’s timely reimagining of the ‘room’ whilst discussing glass ceilings and formal equality in public spheres for women in the Oxford University Meeting Minds session proved foundational to the conception of the lunch’s themes. The idea of an intersectional and expansive view of labour, remuneration and intersectionality resonated with the current Rhodes Women group, recognising that demands for equal pay within formal structured workplaces must acknowledge informal work sectors, invisible physical and emotional labour, workplace environments and the possibility of drastic changes and reimagining what these look like, as well as the differences and diversities among and within women. Appreciating the privilege and access that the Rhodes Scholarship brings to decision-making, we sought to discuss the metaphor of the room—glass ceilings, structural inequities and sticky floors, positions within the room, multiple, sometimes competing desires to transform the room from within or without. Thus “Glass Ceilings and Sticky Floors: Women’s Advancement at all levels” formed the theme for the gathering.

Joined by alumni Penelope Brook (New Zealand & Nuffield 1984), Amy Ng (Hong Kong & Balliol 1997), Chelsea Purvis (California & Merton 2006), Nadiya Figueroa (Jamaica & St. Catherine's 2007), and Fritzi Reuter (Germany & Lincoln 2015), the discussion centred around the sticky floors and glass ceilings they have encountered whether in the workplace, at educational institutions, in board rooms, in the arts, and even aggregate economic statistics. In ways both personal and structural, their insights provided profound reflections on the challenges and possibilities gender serves in vocation. Amy Ng discussed self-doubt and hesitation in submitting creative work, unreasonable standards of perfection, and the pitfalls of top-down diversity movements. This dovetailed well with Nadiya Figueroa’s insights into cultural differences, informal and formal power-holding and sharing, and the myriad ways we negotiate gender every day. Fritzi shared statistical information regarding the ways in which the wage equality movement must address different family structures, race, region in building a more transformative idea of advancement. Chelsea Purvis shed light on the trap of ‘niceness’, the role of family, childcare and experiences of motherhood and how those intersected with vocational advancement, while Penelope stressed the need for solidarity and positive interactions among women.

These varied perspectives from across the generations of Rhodes Women served as a catalyst for our continued discussions of the glass ceilings we have observed and the sticky floors that dually exist. Working in small groups of eight Scholars, we pushed the discussion further not only by sharing one another's life stories and perspectives, but also by beginning to envisage a possible action plan that we could commit to. We listed several ways in which we may globally or locally combat the sticky floors and glass ceilings, looking out for ourselves and our female peers as we pursue our personal and professional goals. Insights included saying yes to opportunities, no to entitlement, the need for boundaries and self-care, acknowledgement of our experiences at individual and collective levels, appreciating our commonalities and differences. Overall, the event provided a space for comfort and support, for community and for action.


Ashley Orr (Ohio & St John’s 2016), René Sharanya Verma (India & Lady Margaret Hall 2016), and Naying Ren (China & Linacre 2016) are the current co-convenors of the Rhodes Women’s Group in Oxford.

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The Rhodes Scholar Blog features the excellent research from our Rhodes Scholars and their insights into important topical issues. If you would like to contribute, please contact claire.skilton@rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk