When Marilyn Loden first used the phrase “glass ceiling” at a women’s business conference in 1978, she didn’t imagine it would become a familiar metaphor for the challenges to career advancement faced by women in the workforce.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Loden told the Washington Post in 2018, the 40th anniversary of the first time she used the term. “It made sense to me in the moment.”
She also didn’t think at the time that women would continue to encounter those invisible obstacles after her death.
“I thought I would be finished with this by the end of my lifetime, but I won’t be,” she told the Post. “I’m hoping if it outlives me, it will (become) an antiquated phrase. People will say, ‘There was a time when there was a glass ceiling.’”
Loden died last month at 76, according to an obituary published in her local paper, the Napa Valley Register. Her death came a year after Loden was diagnosed with cancer, the paper reported. Widely credited with coining the term “glass ceiling,” she leaves behind a rich history of advocating for working women and challenging companies to break down the barriers to women’s career success.
Loden invented ‘glass ceiling’ off the cuff
When Loden worked in AT&T’s HR department, she was asked to fill in for a female manager at the 1978 Women’s Action Alliance Conference, the Post reported. She joined a panel on women’s advancement in the workforce that focused on women’s roles in their career stagnation, assertions Loden felt were unfair.
“It was a struggle to sit quietly and listen to the criticisms,” she wrote in a 2017 piece for the BBC.
She felt it was not women who were responsible for their lack of advancement but the sexism inherent in institutions like the American workforce.
“I argued that the ‘invisible glass ceiling’ – the barriers to advancement that were cultural not personal – was doing the bulk of the damage to women’s career aspirations and opportunities,” she said in her BBC article.
Loden challenged the prevalent idea of the time that women should adhere to a traditionally masculine model of leadership to succeed within their industry. In the 1985 book “Feminine Leadership, or How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys,” Loden encouraged women readers not to change themselves to fit in with their male bosses but to draw on their strengths to change the landscapes of their companies. She also penned books on how to support diversity in the workplace.
“To compete effectively, basic changes are called for in the very structure of US corporations and the manner in which they are run,” she wrote in “Feminine Leadership.”
In the years that followed the publication of her books, Loden lent her expertise on uplifting women in the workplace to organizations like Citibank, NASA and the US Navy, where she helped implement changes that held leaders accountable for sexual harassment within Navy ranks and created assault prevention policies.
Even as more women started to helm major companies, Loden pleaded with those leaders to avoid becoming complacent: In 2013, she found flaws within Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean-in” technique, which encouraged women to assert themselves at work. She wrote that Sandberg’s advice is “no solution for the gender bias, inflexible work schedules and pay inequities that many working women still face.
“While her accomplishments are admirable, she still represents the female exception and not the norm in the American workplace,” Loden wrote in a New York Times letter to the editor in 2013.
She repeated the sentiment in a 2018 interview with Reuters: “What I think every woman who’s in a bona fide leadership position needs to be doing now is being an advocate for change for women,” she said.
‘Glass ceiling’ enters the cultural lexicon
“Glass ceiling” started to appear in the media years after Loden’s first usage – first in a 1984 Adweek profile of the writer Gay Bryant, and then in business publications in the following years. But it wasn’t until 1991, when US legislators created the Glass Ceiling Commission to study those invisible obstacles and create pathways to career advancement for women and people of color, that the term achieved nationwide recognition.
Several high-profile women have used the phrase in widely seen addresses, including two speeches by Hillary Clinton during both of her presidential campaigns. In her 2016 concession speech, she lamented that the glass ceiling of the presidency had not yet been broken: “Now I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will – and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.”
Loden told various publications on the 40th anniversary of the origin of “glass ceiling” that she didn’t think in the ’70s that women would still have to contend with sexism in the workplace in 2018. The anniversary coincided with the widespread #MeToo movement, in which several women, many of them in the entertainment industry, named high-powered men whom they said had sexually harassed or abused them on the job.
“It strikes me that there’s still a lot of fear about challenging the status quo,” she told the Washington Post in 2018 of what she’d gleaned from #MeToo stories.
Loden continued her workplace advocacy well into her 70s, telling Reuters in 2018 that those tales of harassment only reinforced her mission.
“I think there’s just so much more work to do,” she told Reuters. “I’m not ready to stop. I want to make a difference.”