There has been a lot of talk recently about the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier that women and minorities knock their heads against when they try to move up in their organizations.
The executive ceiling is real -- and really low. In a 1990 analysis of 31,187 managers of 94 Fortune 1,000 companies conducted by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, 16.9 percent were women and 6 percent minorities. Among 4,491 top-level executives, 6.6 percent were women and 2.5 percent minorities.
And the actual numbers are even lower, because minority women are counted in both categories. All the rest of the positions are filled by white men.
But there's new hope that the barrier can be crushed because Labor Secretary Lynn Martin is getting pushy about the frustrating blockade. She has announced her determination to "tear down, dismantle, remove and shatter" the glass ceiling.
Advocates of equal opportunity are happy with the secretary's commitment to being an iconoclast. The dictionary defines iconoclast as "any attacker of established ideas and usages . . . literally, an image breaker."
And, it will take "image breaking" to destroy the ceiling, apparently made up of crack-resistant glass and change-resistant management.
Still, there is skepticism about whether Martin can achieve the desired goal because she wants to educate, rather than punish, violators of equal-opportunity laws or indemnify the victims, which she is mandated to do by law.
Others are concerned because they believe the phrase "the glass ceiling" has been used instead of what they consider the proper terminology for the problem. Perhaps a better phrase to describe the barrier is "grass sealant."
The grass sealant, its advocates insist, is the more accurate description of the thorny problem women and minorities face in hacking their way into executive suites. Grass sealant is a new term -- coined this very day -- to describe the glossy finish on the slippery slopes of success that prevents non-white and female employees from moving into the green pastures of the corporate structure.
Grass sealant is a toxic chemical spread on wide expanses of lawn that keeps certain tender plants and shoots from achieving full growth. The mixture cuts off growing things that don't conform to the standard, accepted form of tall, broad-shouldered, bright-green blades of All-American foliage, the kind used at all-white, male country clubs.
If the grass sealant isn't enough to nip them in the bud, the tender shoots often are left uncultivated and untended because they are "different" and "nontraditional" aspirants to a verdant life.
The impenetrable lacquer of grass sealant poses a danger to everyone who believes in a level playing field. It is particularly harmful to women and minorities who do not like being trampled or having their growth stunted.
Martin says she will use her "bully pulpit" as secretary of labor to mow down the opposition, but many believe she'll have a tough row to hoe to convince the landscapers, who own all the tools and sprays, that the use of grass sealant is counterproductive if they want to remain competitive in the next century.
The labor secretary says the question isn't "Why isn't a woman or minority the president of General Motors?" but, "Are they on the right career path to be president?" Grass sealant advocates say the question should be "Are they are on the right garden path to be president?"
Sadly, the answer too often is "no."
Martin, the ultimate gardener with the legal responsibility to grow variegated plants, has a 500-pound tool she can use to destroy corporate America's millions of aerosol cans of grass sealant.
That tool is her authority to deny federal contracts to companies that don't obey equal-opportunity requirements. And observers of the grass sealant syndrome agree. Her strength, they say, lies in cutting off offenders at the root, spraying the ground with environmentally safe pesticide to remove all traces of the harmful sealant in the work world, and then resodding the area with a multifarious planting of qualified seedlings so opportunity will flower.
Some of the strongest critics of conditions created by the use of grass sealant are forming environmental groups throughout the United States. They point out that even the most carefully trained grass, if it receives no nurturing, will shrivel and die.
Strong, powerful plants that have survived the destructive attacks of grass sealant proponents want to end limitations on their growth and usefulness. They want to be able to grow to be 10-foot stalks, powerful and productive.
Says one advocate of equal employment landscapes: "Instead of a 500-pound hammer, Secretary Martin needs to pick up a 500-pound machete and chop away until that grass sealant disappears forever."
Even if it's a glass ceiling.