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Breaking the Glass Ceiling in Your Mind Takes Extra Work After 60

By Becki Cohn-Vargas September 29, 2020 Mindset

Funny thing. I have wanted to write this blog for several months and couldn’t seem to get started. No surprise, it is about facing something in ourselves, limitations that stop us from doing what we most want to do. The metaphor of a glass ceiling is quite apropos.

When you look up at a glass ceiling, you can see beyond it. You might not even see it there as you look up into the endless possibilities of the sky.

The metaphor of a glass ceiling has mostly been used to describe unspoken limitations that others place on us. It was originally coined in relation to women rising in professions that have traditionally been the realm of men.

What Is the Best Place in the World to be a Working Woman?

I discovered that a US Federal Glass Ceiling Commission began in 1995 and the 2015 Glass Ceiling Index (The Economist) tracks changes on a yearly basis. It ranks the best place in the world to be a working woman. I have watched things change for women over the last six decades.

Courageous women throughout history have always shattered the glass ceiling. We have seen political leaders in Angela Merkel in Germany and Theresa May in the UK and Hillary Clinton, the first female candidate for President of a major party in the US.

The list of female heads of state is longer than I can list here – from Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh to Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland.

Exploring Internal Glass Ceilings

Yet, there is no doubt that glass ceilings are real and continue to be documented. One of the insidious results of having to break REAL glass ceilings is that we often have our own internal ceilings that are even lower that the external one out there. It is no wonder that we have internalized the things that we have heard all our lives.

In a 2015 Forbes article Claudia Chan, CEO of S.H.E. Globl Media, was interviewed. She said, “The glass ceiling is just as much internal as it is external. I have studied women in three life stages: “Starting Out”, “Career Transitional”, and “Purpose Aligned” to discover how women hold themselves back and what can be done.”

I can personally relate exactly to her “purpose aligned” phase, which Chan says “comes when women are living in more alignment with what truly matters to them.”

Although my entire life has been driven by a sense of purpose, now in my 60s, I find myself having more freedom in terms of time and the level of knowledge and skills to match my passions and to focus on my purpose. And that has me face-to-face with my personal glass ceilings.

Shattering Our Internal Glass Ceilings

Chan describes “self-doubt” and lack of confidence as the biggest enemies that trigger the self-talk. I also believe that as women, we were not raised to THINK BIG. So, the glass ceiling can cause limitations of what we are even willing to attempt, long before the self-doubt creeps up.

In both cases, countering that negative self-talk and challenging ourselves to step out of our comfort zones becomes the work of shattering our internal ceilings.

For myself, I am working on thinking big. I am seeking to be a “thought leader” in the realm of equity in education, the field I dedicated my life to and where I worked for 35 years.

The glass ceiling that holds me back is the worry about promoting myself. I worry that I will appear too self-absorbed or too full of myself. That was the message I have heard all my life. What holds you back?

Women Often Don’t Like to Self-Promote

My grandmother always championed the “silent sufferers” who trudge ahead valiantly without complaint. She had forward-thinking parents who sent her to Oxford in the 20s, but she spent her life married and raising children. I was too young to ask her sisters what they thought before they died.

Neither my Aunt Gertrude, who was the head nurse of the Hamburg Jewish Hospital or my Aunt Lottie, who was a doctor, got married. My mother had a career as a teacher before and after she raised her kids. Although she always seemed to be in the shadow of my father; nobody ever questioned his ego when he promoted himself.

I only found out in her last year of life how influential my mother became, not only to her students, but to the entire school district. I am lucky that thanks to these women and others in generations before me, things have changed, and I could be married, raise children, and still pursue leadership roles.

My friends and colleagues tell me that I should not worry about marketing myself. They remind me that what I am really marketing is the important ideas I believe in and what I have learned from my experience and from many others.

So now you might be able to see why I was resisting writing this blog. Having publicly stated that I do not want to be held back from putting myself out there to market my ideas, all that is left is to step out, shut down those critical internal voices, then get out there and do it!

What about you? What glass ceilings do you find in yourselves or outside? How are you working to break them? Do you do a good job of “marketing” yourself? Please join the conversation. Let’s shatter our inner glass ceilings together!

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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