A handy rundown of the myriad terms used to describe the challenging circumstances surrounding women in comms, many involving glass.

Sarah Thomas, Director, Women in Comms

January 18, 2017

6 Min Read
A Women in Comms Glossary

You've heard of the glass ceiling, but did you know that the escalators at your office may also be made of glass? And, have you noticed those women wearing golden skirts around the office?

I came across the term "golden skirt" today in an article noting that while women are getting asked to be on boards more than ever, it's the same small group of women getting those calls. It's certainly a valid point, but I was also struck by just how many metaphors there are to explain the myriad obstacles women in the tech industry face on a daily basis.

Since we cover these obstacles every day here on Women in Comms, we thought it'd be helpful to have a handy pocket dictionary-sized list of terms you should know if you're a woman in our industry or a man who wants to understand what we're up against. Let us know in the comments section if there are any other terms we should be adding to our colorful WiC lexicon.

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  • Brogrammer: Silicon Valley, first the place then the show, made brogrammer a common part of our vocabulary by hiring so many of them. Brogrammers are male computer programmers who fit the stereotype of hoodie-wearing macho men. The prevalence of them and the celebration of a frat-like culture at startups has contributed to making the Valley a hostile environment for women who don't fit the mold. (And, no, "hogrammers" and "broettes" are not the female versions...) (See WiCipedia: Facebook's LGBT Stats, Broettes & 'Tiny Lady Hands', Tales From the Valley: Bias, Sexism & Worse and A Vast Valley: Tech's Inexcusable Gender Gap.)

    • Gaslighting: Ever get told you're crazy for feeling a certain way? You may be a victim of gaslighting, which is the process of manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. It usually refers to something that happens in personal relationships, but it certainly could take place in the workplace as well. Even more troubling, some suggest US President-elect Donald Trump may already be making 2017 a huge year for gaslighting on a national scale.

    • Girl boss: Girl boss is a woman who is in charge. It's pretty self-explanatory, but the term coined by fashion business mogul Sophia Amorusa has become a way to celebrate female leaders, which are still rare today in the tech world. The more women we get into the C-suite, the closer we'll come to just calling them bosses. (See WiCipedia: Girl Bosses, Returnships & 'Women Don't Require Fixing'.)

    • Glass ceiling: The glass ceiling was a term coined by the Wall Street Journal back in 1986. And, while some might argue it no longer exists, any number of women will tell you it does, and they have statistics to back them up. The ceiling is glass because you likely won't see it as you're working your way up the corporate ladder, but it represents those barriers and challenges that arise in the workplace as women struggle to advance to the highest rungs. (See Infinera: The Glass Ceiling's Been Broken and How the Glass Ceiling Became a Window of Opportunity for Ixia CMO.)

    • Glass cliff: A glass cliff is the notion that women are often put in leadership positions during times of crisis when chances of failure and criticism are highest. Boards are then suddenly more open to looking outside of their usual white male hire. If you're optimistic, this is because companies know women have the right skill set, point of view and experience to right the ship. If you're pessimistic, they are simply setting them up for failure. See Yahoo's soon-to-resign CEO Marissa Mayer for one such example. (See Clearfield CEO Takes Fiber to the Glass Cliff and Marissa Mayer & the Terrible, Horrible Day.)

    • Glass escalator: With all this glass everywhere, it's becoming clear why so many women feel the need to tip-toe around the office. The glass escalator is yet another disturbing phenomenon in which men enter female-dominated professions and receive promotions to ride up their career echelons faster than the women. This is less common in the tech industry solely because it is already so male dominated, but it's a reminder that even those traditionally female fields have gendered issues as well.

    • Golden skirt: The aforementioned golden skirt refers to the small group of women being pursued as a result of an increased focus on female representation on boards in the tech industry. These women are well-qualified, talented and typically highly visible women, so they are getting the bulk of attention from recruiters. Diversity in terms of gender split may increase, but the landscape doesn't actually become all that much more diverse with such a small group of women being courted.

    • Mansplaining: Mansplaining is a relatively new term on the Interwebs, but it's something that's long been experienced by many women in the industry. It is when a man explains something to someone (most likely a woman) in a way that is patronizing and condescending, typically assuming said woman knows nothing -- or at least less than the man -- about the topic. (See WiCipedia: Following Women on Twitter... and on Stage.)

    • Returnship: Returnships are becoming more popular in the tech industry as a means to help mid-career professionals return to work after a leave of absence, such as for parental leave or after an extended career break to care for an ailing family member. Anyone, but especially women, with a big gap in their resume can have a hard time re-entering the workforce and commanding the same paycheck they had when they left. The idea with returnships is to ease these employees back in, although they come under fire for making seasoned executives partake in trial periods doing work below their pay grade with no assurance of hiring when the internship concludes.

    • Sticky floor: While women may get locked out of the top, an even larger group never leave the bottom often due to the sticky floor phenomenon. The sticky floor is defined a few different ways, depending on the industry and situation. Traditionally, it can refer to so-called "pink collar" workers, such as secretaries or assistants, that are kept at the bottom of the job scale throughout their careers. On a personal level, author Rebecca Shambaugh calls them "self-limiting beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors that can self-limit women's ability to achieve their career goals and bring their greatest gifts and value to their teams and organization." And, from a workplace support perspective, Michele Schimpp, associate administrator of the US Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Investment and Innovation, recently described it to WiC as when "one is held back because they lack the team they need to succeed and are held back from showing leadership talents." (See SBA Leader: It's Time to Get Women on Board .)

      — Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Director, Women in Comms

About the Author(s)

Sarah Thomas

Director, Women in Comms

Sarah Thomas's love affair with communications began in 2003 when she bought her first cellphone, a pink RAZR, which she duly "bedazzled" with the help of superglue and her dad.

She joined the editorial staff at Light Reading in 2010 and has been covering mobile technologies ever since. Sarah got her start covering telecom in 2007 at Telephony, later Connected Planet, may it rest in peace. Her non-telecom work experience includes a brief foray into public relations at Fleishman-Hillard (her cussin' upset the clients) and a hodge-podge of internships, including spells at Ingram's (Kansas City's business magazine), American Spa magazine (where she was Chief Hot-Tub Correspondent), and the tweens' quiz bible, QuizFest, in NYC.

As Editorial Operations Director, a role she took on in January 2015, Sarah is responsible for the day-to-day management of the non-news content elements on Light Reading.

Sarah received her Bachelor's in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She lives in Chicago with her 3DTV, her iPad and a drawer full of smartphone cords.

Away from the world of telecom journalism, Sarah likes to dabble in monster truck racing, becoming part of Team Bigfoot in 2009.

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