Over the years, we’ve heard the term “glass ceiling” used to refer to discriminatory practices that help to prevent women from advancing into higher level leadership positions in our society. One of Hillary Clinton’s best lines from the recent Presidential campaign is how her primary race made “18 million cracks” in that glass ceiling.
Tinted Glass Ceiling
I’m going to borrow the glass ceiling metaphor, change and expand it a bit, and apply it to my adopted home city of Boston. Here’s the hypothesis: In Boston, more than in many other major cities, there exists a “tinted glass ceiling” that continues to exclude those who in some way challenge the authority of those who have long held the reigns of power and influence in this city. It is grounded in the city’s historically insular culture, and it is especially prevalent in workplaces of all kinds.
The excluded include a disproportionate share of people of color and women, but also newcomers to the city representing virtually all demographic groups. Boston (unlike, say, its hated rival New York) has never been considered a welcoming place for newcomers, and institutions that have been historically local in nature can be especially, and brutally, exclusionary towards them. The “minorities” (generically speaking) who are permitted entry into select circles of power are usually those who pose no threat to the status quo and its beneficiaries.
I use the term “tinted” because there is nothing transparent about these practices of exclusion. In a city where people often hold on to power for its own sake, a lot of decision making is made behind closed doors, literally and figuratively. The “wink and a nod” still are practiced in Boston, and the rest of us are left to figure out what happened and to sort out the results.
I realize that many cities and towns, and many institutions and workplaces, embrace such exclusionary practices. Boston is surely not alone in this regard. But Boston is unique in the degree to which these practices continue to prevail. Boston has become a more diverse and cosmopolitan city, but its power bases remain remarkably insular and, frankly, insecure. This reality cuts across private, public, and non-profit sector institutions.
How do we change this culture? Speaking truth to power is easier said than done, but it must be done. For starters, however, we need to sort out the reality of things. To help us, writer and organizational change consultant Art Kleiner has advanced the idea of “core group theory” in his book, Who Really Matters (2003). In essence, Kleiner posits that every organization — large and small — has a core group that defines both mission and practice. While people in top management positions are likely to be part of the core, this is not necessarily so. A true core group often transcends, to some degree, strict lines of organizational structure and hierarchy.
If you want to understand how an organization includes or excludes, identifying the core group is a vital first step. Examine the core group members in terms of demographics. Look at the inclusionary or exclusionary practices of those within the core group. You’ll get a lot of answers about the culture of a particular workplace or institution, along with some insights about what is required to achieve positive change.