Social Inequality Smoothies

A Strawberry Kale and Beetroot Juice Smoothie…

Like beetroot juice and kale – two things no sane person wants to see on the same plate – there are certain things in life that are both demonstrably good for you and hard to digest.

Sociologically, I’d suggest this is true of studying different forms of inequality: demonstrably good in the sense of helping students develop a much deeper level of understanding about social processes, but hard to digest because they can be difficult to present in ways that aren’t dry, dull and generally off-putting.

However, just as it’s possible to disguise the essential grossness – while still benefitting from the inherent goodness – of things like beetroot juice and kale by hiding them in a Smoothie that slips smoothly down the throat (hence the term “Smoothie”. Possibly) the same can be true of social inequality.

And nothing says “Socio-economic Smoothie” like an analogy.

Or two.

Glass Houses…

Throughout their course students will be introduced to a range of  analogies relating to social and economic inequality – particularly gender inequality – most of which, for some reason, seem to be glass-based. The most-notable of these is probably:

  • the glass ceiling: While women can see others (mainly men) occupying the top positions in organisations, they are generally unable to reach these positions. There is an invisible barrier that blocks the upward mobility of women without seemingly having the same effect on men.

If you’re so inclined you might want to stop at this point to quickly explore possible reasons for this situation with your students.

Alongside this is the slightly-less well-known idea of:

  • a glass trapdoor: Those women who do manage to reach higher occupational levels only do so by adopting explicitly male organisational behaviours, practices and identities. This involves a tendency to view their female colleagues as competitors and consequently not to help them achieve similar levels of success. In other words, once such women have managed to climb into the higher organisational levels they then pull the glass trapdoor shut to prevent other women following in their footsteps.

And a final piece of glass-based tomfoolery involves a concept that can be applied equally-successfully to ideas about ethnic as to gender inequalities, namely:

  • a glass cliff faceRyan and Haslam (2005) suggest this involves “the tendency for women (and ethnic minorities) who break through the glass ceiling to be placed in more precarious leadership positions than men“. One of the organisational benefits for men in this scenario is that it absolves them from accusations of sexist and/or racist employment practices. Women (and any other minority you care to target) are apparently given the chance to succeed but simply fail to take advantage of the opportunity. Their (inevitable) failure is not, therefore, the result of structural forms of inequality but the outcome of individual weaknesses. The fact women, as Henderson (2004) has argued, are “much more likely to be given “poisoned chalice” jobs in which they struggle to succeed” is simply ignored.

At this point it can sometimes be fruitful to explore the implications of this idea for different forms of inequality – and how they can be “explained away” by the socially-powerful.

Concrete bunkers…

While these silicon-based analogies are both descriptive and explanatory, there are a couple more non-glass analogies you might find useful.

  • the concrete ceiling involves the idea that higher occupational levels in some organisations are effectively “closed off” to women, such that they have no prospect of ever attaining them and, consequently, no interest in trying. It would, after all, be largely a waste of time and effort. This concept has been particularly employed in relation to the organisational experiences of women of colour.  As Lang, in an article by Hanieh Khosroshahi (2021) that’s well worth the reading time if you want to take the concept further, puts it:

“The term ‘glass ceiling’ originated because you could look through it and see what was possible, but you hit against a barrier as you pushed up, so the aspiration was there and the expectation was there. But think about a concrete ceiling – if you’re in a bunker, you don’t even know there’s a sky out there”.

and Sticky Floors

A final expression of inequality – the concept of a sticky floor – is a bit more-complicated in its operation because it has a couple of meanings, one classical, the other more-contemporary:

classical: Berheide (1992) argued that the glass ceiling reflects increasing economic inequalities the higher one goes in an organisation. We find, in this respect, the widest gender pay gaps are between men and women at the highest organisational levels.

A “sticky floor”, therefore, represents the opposite of this idea: the widest gender pay gaps are at the bottom of the wage distribution hierarchy. In this interpretation, “otherwise identical men and women might be appointed to the same pay scale or rank, but the women are appointed at the bottom and men further up the scale“.  Both a glass ceiling and a sticky floor can, of course, operate in the same organisation at the same time.

While men are able to quickly rise up a given corporate pay scale, women are resolutely stuck to the pay floor – a situation in which gendered pay inequality is effectively structured into male – female work relationships: similarly experienced and qualified men and women may be initially appointed at a similar rank or position but women are invariably appointed at the bottom of the scale and find it more difficult to move up the scale over time.

  • contemporary: a slightly-different variation on this theme is that in contemporary public and private organisations there is increasingly little-or-no opportunity for career advancement “up-the-organisational-scale” because the organisational structure is broadly flat – at least for the majority of workers. Unlike classic “pyramidical organisations” there are few, if any, tapered levels up which the majority of employees can advance. This type of organisational structure resembles a classic “flying-saucer” shape: a broad, flat, body with a relatively small dome at the top.

For a relatively small number of employees “the dome” offers the conventional rewards of high status, promotions, high salaries and the like where “the sky is the limit”. The majority of employees, however, remain stuck to the floor because there is no-where else they can go.

The shape of many contemporary workplace structures?

This concept is an interesting way to explain contemporary forms of workplace / economic inequality because it can be applied across a range of categories: class, age, gender, ethnic and so forth.

This idea is something that can be explored further in relation to a range of contemporary workplace trends – such as zero-hours contracts – and this has possible implications for different forms of social and economic inequality.

One final useful thing to note is that each of these analogies is easy to illustrate visually to reinforce their meaning – there are loads of different examples of each lying around on the web in different forms.

But in case you don’t have the time to look for them I’ve created a short-but-colourful PowerPoint Presentation just for you.

Yes, you.

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