Glass Walls: Partial Solution to The Glass Ceiling?

The discussion on Hacker News of my piece The Gray Zone had some folks remarking that there are no solutions. I don't think that is true. I felt compelled to respond to someone who indicated they felt a sense of dread over the lack of solutions. So I plan to try to write a bit about things that have worked for me or for other women I have known well enough to hear some of the inside dirt. I think dealing successfully with The Gray Zone is one of those things that a lot of successful women have in common and mostly do not talk about.

This is an excerpt from a piece that was originally titled A Well Placed Smile and was originally published on 2011/10/26 when I still had a corporate job at a Fortune 500 company.

I ran into some guy in the stairwell one day.  Nice man.  Married.  Appears to find me quite likable.  The stairwell was deserted and I was waiting on someone.  He and I talked a minute.  It was an uncharacteristically intimate moment for a work setting.  I don't mean he said anything salacious. I just mean we were very alone and that almost never happens.  I work in a big building with hundreds of people.  So it was an unguarded moment, a moment when trust or a sense of closeness was established.

This was not long before another man was fired amidst scandal over a woman.  The rumor mill suggests either an affair or sexual harassment.  I can believe either.  I walked on eggshells for over two years around him.  It was obvious to me he was a sociopath who took glee in psychologically and emotionally torturing people and the way he talked to women was really not appropriate.  But most people were completely taken in and found him very charming.  His sudden departure left the department with a funerary atmosphere (while I tried to hide my desire to pass out party hats and kazoos and dance in the aisles).

Two days after the firing, while so much of the department was still in shock over the whole thing, we had some relatively casual large meeting.  We were all milling about in an open space, waiting for things to begin.  The nice man from the stairwell appeared and was clearly making a beeline towards me to talk to me.  Not good.  Not good at all.  This fool, who is still feeling all warm fuzzy over talking to me in the stairwell, is going to talk to me like I'm his best friend.  In front of like five hundred other people.  Two days after some man was fired over bad behavior involving a woman.

I averted my eyes and turned away ever so slightly.  He didn't miss a beat.  He kept walking and did not stop to talk to me.  I don't think another living soul caught the subtle exchange between us, which was completely played out in terms of body language.  So that was A Good Thing.  However, I now had another problem:  He was going to feel hurt and rejected and confused. And I was never going to have any opportunity to explain my actions to him.

Things were somewhat awkward and uncomfortable for a bit.  But not for long.  It only took one well placed smile to clear things up and convey to him that "I'm not rejecting you and I'm not going to make trouble either.  Everything is cool between us.  Be at ease around me."  He went back to being his usual warm, gracious self around me (though he has ever since respected my unspoken wishes that he not blather on at me overly much in front of too many people -- just because he and I both know nothing is going on does not mean there wouldn't be raised eyebrows and Talk).

There is a lot going on in the above story and I may return to it a few times as I write about different aspects of this issue of how to successfully navigate The Gray Zone if you are a heterosexual woman (or a man hoping to work more successfully with women). One thing I intentionally did not make clear at the time that this was originally written -- because I still worked at the company -- is that the man in question was rather powerful at the company. He was an important executive in my department. I had an entry level job that I never got promoted out of (though I moved to a new team in my last months there which was promising to be a promotion track, however I left for health reasons before that turned into more money or prestige).

In mulling over what I would like to say, it occurred to me that part of what fostered the sense of trust between me (an entry level employee) and this executive (with whom I rarely spoke because I was a nobody) was the architecture of the stairwell. I had a desk job but it was "back office" type work and the building was located in an industrial park. I worked in a cubicle farm with high ceilings. The building was encased in black glass. This exterior stairwell had a very open design and glass exterior walls.

Because of the open design and the glass walls, the stairwell had no sense of visual privacy. At night, when the lights were on in the stairwell and it was dark outside, you were on display for anyone in the parking lot to see. During the day, you were partially obscured by the dark glass but, no, the walls were not opaque. If you worked there, you were very aware that the stairwell lacked visual privacy. It was a place you could meet a friend to talk because it had auditory privacy that the open floor plan cubicle farm tended to lack but, no, this was not a place to make out with someone or pat them on the butt. Plus, there were security cameras in the stairwell.

So this executive and I had a sense of conversational privacy but we had no sense of visual privacy. The situation was conducive to speaking freely but it was not conducive to doing anything you wouldn't want other people to see. This fostered a sense of non-sexual intimacy. It fostered a sense of being able to talk without worrying that it might be misinterpreted as romantic intimacy.

In thinking about this, I remembered another incident where I had a long conversation with a man under similar circumstances. In GIS school, I ended up talking at length in the dorm hallway to a male classmate. His bedroom was across from mine. No one hung out in the hallway, so we could talk. But people could and did come and go from rooms down the hall or come out of the elevator or stairwell. We had conversational privacy but no visual privacy. At some point, I felt kind of stupid standing in the hall talking for so long and asked if he wanted to come sit at the table in my dorm room (where there was a bed, not just a table). He wisely declined.

The department where I worked was a pink collar ghetto with a high percentage of female employees.
The fact that it was a cubicle farm meant that, no, you could not make out on your desk or something. Supervisors had higher walls on their cubicles but most of the top portion of the higher wall was glass. So, again, this fostered conversational privacy but not visual privacy. You could talk privately with an underling if you needed to do so but, no, no one was going to give you a blowjob at your desk. There was no way to have that kind of privacy in any of the cubicles.

In addition to making this a more comfortable environment for men and women to interact socially, the openness likely reduces other problem behaviors. Abusive people are almost always at their worst when they are alone with their victim because they do not want witnesses. So I think one could advocate for visual openness at work for reasons other than promoting gender parity. I can easily see circumstances where trying to promote as a gender parity solution might be problematic.

I am keying in on the idea of glass walls as a potential partial solution to the problem of The Glass Ceiling because while the visual openness of the glass stairwell helped make it a socially safe environment by eliminating the prospect of romantic interaction, the fact that it was enclosed was also a necessary feature to foster that sense of conversational closeness and trust and ability to speak at ease.  One issue we had in the department was that employees were not supposed to announce that they were being promoted but it was common for multiple supervisors to drop by the desk of someone getting promoted and loudly congratulate them (rather than shooting them an email saying "congrats"). Yeah, just because you cannot see me at the next desk over, I am totally deaf and too stupid to infer that this person has been promoted or something. So I felt that the cubicle farm environment failed in certain regards (granted, better training and a different company culture would have reduced some of these issues).

If you are a business person looking to meet with a member of the opposite sex, you may have no control over the existing design of the space you work in. But being aware that The Gray Zone exists and is an issue and being aware of certain factors in your physical environment can help you choose places and strategies that help keep the waters unmuddied. Meeting in an office can be made less problematic by leaving the door open. Meetings can be made less problematic by choosing locations that fit this criteria of visual openness combined with conversational privacy.

So I don't think it's hopeless. I think simply realizing that The Gray Zone is a big barrier to many women is a huge leap forward and opens up the possibility of finding solutions in the here and now. I don't think anyone should feel filled with dread to realize this is a part of the problem. I think knowledge is power.


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