Marilyn Loden, Who Championed a Feminist Metaphor, Dies at 76

Marilyn Loden was 31 and working in human resources at the New York Telephone Company when she was asked to be part of a panel at a feminist conference in Manhattan. It was 1978, and the topic was how women were thwarted in the workplace. As her fellow panelists discussed poor self-image and self-deprecating behaviors, Ms. Loden grew frustrated. It was clear to her that women were not to blame for their own stalled careers.

“It seemed to me that there was an invisible barrier to advancement that people didn’t recognize,” she told The Washington Post in 2018. On that day in 1978, Ms. Loden described that barrier as “the glass ceiling.”

Though it didn’t appear in print until 1984, and though others have also been credited with the neologism, Ms. Loden claimed authorship of what became an enduring metaphor. It was a vivid image for the times: Second-wave feminism was in full swing. Women were entering the work force and politics in healthy numbers; they were marching up corporate ladders and winning seats in Congress and state legislatures. Yet though they could see their way to the top and visualize their place there, they were getting only so far.

At her own company, Ms. Loden recalled male peers telling her to “smile more” in meetings, while other male co-workers averred that the advancement of female middle managers was “degrading those positions.” And when a promotion she felt she had earned went to a man, despite her better performance record, she was told that it was because “he was a ‘family man,’” she told the BBC in 2017 — “that he was the main breadwinner and so needed the money more.”

Ms. Loden left New York Telephone in 1981 (she quit when she was ordered to take a position she did not want), and she went on to have a successful career as a management consultant and author, lecturing and advising companies — and the United States Navy — on diversity in the workplace and gender differences in leadership styles.

She died on Aug. 6 at a hospital in St. Helena, Calif. She was 76. Her sister and only immediate survivor, Patricia Pollok, said the cause was small-cell lung cancer.

Whoever first uttered the words “glass ceiling,” the term was certainly in the air in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2015 that Katherine Lawrence, then a Hewlett-Packard executive, recalled using it in a speech at a conference in 1979 (and that she said she had thought of it independently).

It gained currency slowly. It first appeared in print in 1984, when Gay Bryant, the new editor of Family Circle, was quoted in Adweek magazine as saying: “Women have reached a certain point. I call it the glass ceiling.” By 1993, it had made its way into the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, as The Washington Post reported, noting that the dictionary cited “the phrase’s origin as 1984, “the same year, incidentally, the words ‘date-rape,’ ‘horndog’ and ‘womanism’ were born.”

Today, the phrase is firmly embedded in the vernacular. The Economist has an annual feature, the Glass Ceiling Index, which rates women’s progress in the workplace in 29 countries using a variety of metrics. (Nordic countries typically top the list — Sweden did, in 2021 — with Japan and South Korea rounding out the bottom. The United States hovers around No. 20.)

Memorably, Hillary Clinton deployed the phrase when she addressed her supporters after losing the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008. “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time,” she said, “thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” She used it again eight years later, when she lost to Donald Trump.

It has evolved to address barriers women and others face in all sorts of spheres — a “bamboo ceiling” for Asian Americans, a “stained glass ceiling” for women in the clergy, a “celluloid ceiling” for women in Hollywood, a “marble ceiling” for women in government, even a “Perspex ceiling” for women in manufacturing. Young women of color, The Washington Post reported in 2016, felt they were facing a “concrete ceiling.”

You can even buy shattered glass ceiling paper weights and jewelry ($50 to $98 at Uncommon Goods; Ms. Loden’s sister gave her a necklace as a gift).

Ms. Loden and “the glass ceiling” were a question on “Jeopardy!” in 2019.Credit…NBC

Ms. Loden told The Washington Post in 2018 that she was hoping it would become “an antiquated phrase,” and that someday “people will say, ‘There was a time when there was a glass ceiling.’”

Marilyn Teresa Downey was born on July 12, 1946, in New Hyde Park, N.Y. Her father, Patrick Downey, was an executive at Shell Oil; her mother, Mary (Keane) Downey, was a homemaker.

She moved to New York City after graduating from Syracuse University in 1968. She met her husband, John Loden, an advertising executive, in 1972; he died in 2021.

At New York Telephone, Ms. Loden and a colleague, Wendy Fleder (now Wendy Tyler), initiated what was known at the time as sensitivity training, essentially consciousness-raising workshops, which were so successful that they spread throughout the Bell companies, Ms. Tyler said in a phone interview.

“Marilyn was smart, assertive and very passionate about what was really important,” Ms. Tyler continued. “She knew how to pick the right fights, but she also knew how to help people overcome what they needed to overcome. She helped people get rid of the noise in their heads.”

In recent years, Ms. Loden and Ms. Tyler had an interior design business in Naples, Fla. “Our careers weren’t easy,” Ms. Tyler said. “Marilyn felt the home was a safe space, and she wanted to help people with theirs.”

Ms. Loden wrote three books on gender and diversity in the workplace. In “Feminine Leadership: Or, How to Succeed in Business Without Being One of the Boys” (1985), she argued that the male leadership model — competitive, aggressive and focused on winning, no matter the cost — was hurting American corporations. She proposed that a philosophy of effective leadership draw from so-called female behaviors and traits, like intuition, empathy and cooperation, instead of treating them as impediments.

“Ms. Loden believes women should not strap on their tailored suits and briefcases and try to behave the way men do,” Marilyn Geewax wrote in a review in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Instead, they should stop apologizing for having a leadership style that tends to make the workplace more productive, lively and humane.”

While the zeitgeist may be the real mother of the glass ceiling, in 2019 one American institution credited Ms. Loden with the expression. On April 11 that year, “Jeopardy!” presented this answer in one of its Daily Doubles: “Management consultant Marilyn Loden says she coined this phrase for a barrier to female success in 1978.”

Stephanie Stein, an editor at HarperCollins, had the correct question (although she eventually lost to James Holzhauer, one of the show’s longest-running winners): “What is the glass ceiling?”

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