Last weekend I was reading an article with a the great title, “The Glass Ceiling is Kind of a Bummer”: Women’s Reflections on a Gender Development Course talking about how undergraduate women often, even as they are in women’s studies courses, deny the impact that sexism has had or will potentially have on their career. (For more on how to teach around this issues, see an article from the Negotiation Journal co-authored with Cathy Tinsley, Sandy Cheldelin and Emily Amantullah last year discussing better ways of teaching gender.) In any case, I read the Glass Ceiling article right before going to services to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim, and, as I was sitting listening to the story of Purim, it reminded me of a great business book written several years ago by Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley–What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies from a Biblical Sage–and how Queen Esther dealt with her Glass Ceiling.
The story of Purim, to recap quickly, is a true story from 400 B.C. set in Persia. After King Ahasuerus becomes unhappy with his queen, he launches an empire-wide search to find his new queen. He chooses Esther, a Jewish orphan raised by her Uncle Mordechai. One day Mordechai refuses to bow down to one of the King’s ministers, Haman. Haman becomes so enraged at this that he not only plots Mordechai’s death but deceives the king into ordering that all Jews throughout the Persian Empire be put to death. Esther has to approach the king without an invitation (which could mean death) and then convince him to spare her people. The king grants Esther an audience and offers her anything. She only asks that the king and Haman join her for dinner. At dinner, the king again offers her anything and she requests that the king and Haman join her again the next night. Only at the next dinner does Esther reveal that she is Jewish and that Haman has plotted to kill her people. She begs the king to “grant me my life and spare my people.” The King grants Esther her wish, Haman is hanged, and the Jews are spared. Not a bad negotiation outcome.
The authors of the book point out several leadership strategies that Esther used: making a great first impression; finding a mentor; knowing palace gossip (or the workings of your own institution); fighting for what you believe in; mapping out a plan of attack; communicating like a queen (clearly and forthrightly); how to deal with life’s Hamans; and keeping the faith. The book is filled with great stories from women who have succeeded at their jobs by demonstrating some combination of winning strategies, determination, and faith.
In other words, undergrads might want to ignore glass ceiling issues but, in real life, it is probably better to have some good ideas for how to deal with them.