The Glass Ceiling by Baldyphil.
I’m shaking so hard I can’t even hold a cup of tea without spilling it everywhere. My handwriting, usually so precise, has become illegible, even to myself, and my insides are glutinous. Has anyone noticed? Probably not, but then again, how does one truly know? That’s the trouble with working in an office; you think no one sees a thing, they’re all too wrapped up in their own lives and couldn’t care anyway; then the minute you leave the room suddenly it’s open season and you’re the butt of all the gossip. No – that’s paranoia. Isn’t it? Of course it is. All I have to do is what I always do; remain calm, collected and in control, even if today I can feel my outer poise draining away faster than a ruptured water main. And this is just today! Hell, if today is like this, what will tomorrow bring?
“Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow.” Hamlet, was it? I wonder what vile portents lie in wait for The Big Day. Or, more exactly, the day of the Big Interview. The moment is upon me. The moment when three – no, five – years’ worth of long, hard and tedious work, a truly incalculable amount of what is so inadequately ascribed to “stress” and finally what has seemed like endless, will-sapping preparation, all this to be distilled into one frantic half-hour. The most crucial half-hour of my working life. And it will be over in less than 18 hours’ time.
Get a grip girl. No, rephrase that: Get a grip, woman. I’m 28 years of age, prime of life and all that, and not unattractive even though I say so myself. I’m reasonably confident, successful too, given a fair break; certainly able to look after myself. Single and proud of it, that’s me. Kids? Well, they can wait. There’s plenty of time for all that hoo-ha, but what there patently isn’t much more time for is promotion, and opportunities thereby. Oh yes, they say there’s no sexism in the workplace, knowing, of course, that there is; just that we can’t, or won’t, be bothered to try and prove it. It’s not something you can put your finger on anyway; just attitudes. Maternity leave, for example. “See, we’re actually giving you time off to have a baby!” Gee, well, thanks. So less messy than giving birth in the meeting room and changing underwear in the canteen, don’t you think? Then the bullshit: “Yes, nearly sixty percent of our staff are female, and rising!” Maybe so: But apply that to the management grades and the lines on the Chief Executive’s equality graph would soon show a somewhat visible droop. As if any such graph would exist. It’s what they call the “glass ceiling”; that invisible yet all-too-real barrier that has left so many of my girl friends and colleagues with nothing more to show for their efforts than sore heads. Sadly, that old cliché rings all too true – if you’re to get anywhere, you have to be more like a man than the men. Yet still somehow remain ‘unthreatening’, to preserve their fragile egos, the poor darlings.
In fact when I think about it, the very expression “glass ceiling” was probably invented by a man, as a means of forming a concrete image that would simultaneously subjugate and intimidate. Maybe I’m being over analytical. Or maybe I’ll just take a hammer to it.
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It’s all about making an impression. When you leave an interview, it’s of vital importance that you’ve made an impression. “Leave them with something they’ll remember you by.” Ah, the old mantra. But what kind of impression? Of course, it doesn’t really matter, just as long as I leave that panel with an impression, one which will remain indelibly fixed in their collective consciousness. Well, for at least as long as it takes to make up their minds. The point is this; there has to be something about you which leaves you standing out from the rest; an image, a picture, a snapshot which all three of them will not be able to erase. Should I regale them with stories of my legendary drinking ability, whereupon I can down the best part of a bottle of vodka and still recite the alphabet backwards? Possibly not. How about the time when I rushed on stage at a concert and snogged Jarvis Cocker, that would make them laugh. Like bloody hyenas, I’m sure. No, it’s a sad fact that there are times when I can’t really trust my big mouth, particularly in stressful situations. Sometimes, it just goes into uncontrolled overdrive, as if it belongs to someone else, someone not very likely to be considered management material. So, basically, it will have to be a visual impression. Being visual, it will have to leave them gasping. For breath. (Fran, you’re such a drama queen – typical Pisces or what?) But how else am I supposed to ‘Wow’ them? Oh, come on, why am I asking you, my mind’s already made up – it’s time for a dramatic makeover. There, see – I’ve just made my first executive decision.
Look at me. Archetypal career female; lifestyle control freak (never above a size 8), always so crisply turned out, smart but not too fashionable, (Marks & Spencer’s, naturally), and make-up never knowingly overstated. Then, of course, there’s the hair. Why, that straight, shiny centre-parted bob put in so many years of good service it should have been nominated for an award. But hey – I changed it, didn’t I? OK, not to any overwhelming degree, but at least I tried, and Lord knows Toni & Guy doesn’t come cheap. I’d had the bob taken up to earlobe level, with more than a hint of expertly crafted nape glistening tantalisingly over my starched collar. I loved it – and soon became all too aware of how tantalising it was because within six months half the other women in the room had copied it. Bitches. Have they no ideas of their own? That was my look, it framed my oval face perfectly, which is more than could be said of that horse-faced old trout sat on the next table. Such was the effect I felt, in a way, violated, and worse, it meant that I was back to square one, looking again like all the others. Some of whom would be attending that very same interview, tomorrow.
I suppose I could go even shorter. Perhaps even show my ears for the very first time – now that would be a revelation, in all senses of the word. And the rest wouldn’t have time to copy me in a day. But, sadly, neither could I make an appointment at T & G’s in a day. Why could I not have thought this out earlier? Time for realism. I’ve no stunning new outfits in the wardrobe, and since emergency plastic surgery is quite out of the question it just has to be the hair.
You know, the more I think about it – it always has been the hair. The first thing people seem to notice about me is my shimmering, raven bob. That sounds conceited, but I’ve had so many compliments over the years that it must be the case. I’ve always been proud of it, I guess, but wishing at the same time that I could just be a bit different from the rest, and to stand out as an individual as opposed to just a fashion victim. And the more I think about it, this has to be the ideal opportunity, so right here, right now, I’m going to make the style change of a lifetime.
Right. I want a hairstyle to knock ’em dead. One that’s unique to me, and has them saying “WOW” beneath their breath – if they can catch it first that is. Practical point one: none of the top stylists could possibly fit me in at one hour’s notice. Practical point two: Even the regular salons would be a mite pushed, and let’s face it, they’re hardly likely to come up with something bobby-dazzling. So there is only one thing for it. I’m going to a barber. Yes, a gentlemen’s barber. One of those with a stripy pole outside and ‘something for the weekend’ inside. I may not know exactly what I want, but I will come out a totally new person and people’s heads will be turning faster than Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”. The future, as they say, starts here.
The shop front looked like a relic from a bygone age, one that had ceased trading aeons ago after the proprietor’s untimely and grisly death. But no, it was open, a shabby sign said so, and the proprietor was one J. S. Rydeard Esq. So I entered, and again through a door marked “saloon”, and suddenly stepped back 50 years. Hair oil. Long handled brushes. Strange cigar-shaped objects to be applied to shaving cuts, and one very old man looking decidedly edgy.
After a while spent shifting uncomfortably, he spoke. “Er, sorry Miss, I don’t do women.” Just like that. Only to be expected.
“Not at all?”
OK, try again. “Yes, I do realise this must be unusual for you,” I ventured, “but please, I would be most grateful if you’d just, like, well – pretend I’m one of your regular customers.”
J.S. wasn’t convinced. “You mean, like, a man? But you’re not, are you – even I can tell that, and with my eyesight.”
But I’m nothing if not persistent. “I know that, sir, but, well, there isn’t anyone else in the shop, and I thought you might appreciate the business.” He stood firm.
“Look, Miss,” (How I hate that word, but let it pass.) “I’d like to help you, honestly, but I’ve just never done a lady’s hair before.”
He’ll have to be told. “You know, we’re not that different really, not when it comes to having a haircut, are we?”
“Yes, but… well, you know,” (he’s weakening) “your hair… it’s different… I’ve never, like, cut into that kind of style before… I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Bingo! “That’s fine sir, because I’d tell you exactly what to do.” He knew he was beaten, but made one last gruff attempt at enquiring of just what he could do to help. Then it was my turn to think. I hadn’t really entered with a set agenda, just a vague notion that I’d wanted something dramatic, so I just came out with: “I’d just be so happy if I could just sit in that chair and have you give me a good short back and sides. You know, with the clippers. Really I would.”
The old barber looked incredulous, and his eyes narrowed into cold slits. I could see him weighing up if I was one of those ‘Lebanese’ that he’d seen once on Channel 4. He must have decided in the affirmative, since now he was motioning me towards the chair. “Well, you’d better sit down then!” he barked. And I sat, realising all of a sudden that I was indeed trembling. “How short d’ya want it?”
I was thinking on my feet now, or to be more precise, my arse. “Very short indeed, thank you. With a right-side parting.”
So this is how it is then; the cape goes round the neck, the chair gets ratcheted up and it’s goodbye to the perfect bob.
He’d asked me again if I was sure, and I’d replied, truthfully, that I’d never been as sure about anything in my life. I felt enveloped by an odd stillness. The old man reached over to the table, flicked a switch, and the Wahl clippers, sans guard, clicked hard, buzzed into life. Had I dreamt of this moment some time ago? I wasn’t sure, and there was no time for further contemplation, since now the buzzing machinery was poised at my left earlobe, humming loudly and strangely hot. And then, with one broad sweep of a thin veiny hand it had careered all the way up to my left temple, removing a whole bush of thick, jet black, well-conditioned hair as it went. I know it sounds naff, but I think I must have tingled. In a way which I hadn’t for, oh, how many years? And this was only the beginning. With the next sweep, my ear was suddenly there, as again whole chunks of hair fell from my head and onto the blue plastic cape. I never realised my left ear stuck out so much. Again, another parallel swoop, and I knew that this time the fine, manicured nape, that had taken four visits to get just right, was about to be shorn into oblivion. I glanced up, and realised that the old man, despite his reticence, appeared to be enjoying himself, albeit in grim fashion. Either that or he’d thought he’ll show the strange young lass what a very short haircut is, by the hell he will.
The Wahl continued its inevitable progression. First the nape sheared off, quickly and easily. Then it was the turn of the heavy stuff. Once so luxuriant and Pantene-shiny, so thick it had appeared indestructible, it gave way without resistance to the buzzing shears as they travelled from my collar to way up past the occipital bone. Now we’d gone past half way round, and as more shimmering tresses were mown off, the scene was becoming one of utter deforestation. My precision-cut hair had been the envy of the whole office. Now it lay in my lap, lifeless and piling up as fast as my porcelain scalp was becoming more and more exposed to the world at large. I wished I hadn’t used a sunbed.
Zzzzzzzzhhnnnnick! Right up the back. Zzzzzhhnnick! The right ear jabs out, again seemingly at 90 degrees. The right sideburns are off, razored right up to the temple, and the shaving, finally, is done.
Time to survey the damage. That crisp centre parting looks so ridiculous now, separating as it does two swatches of still perfectly groomed but now cruelly truncated thick hair, perched comically atop my head and looking very much like a mushroom. The barber takes a step back and sighing deeply, hangs up the Wahl for another day. He, too, surveys the razed landscape, before striding purposefully towards the corner of the room. Then the big scissors come out and before I can say “hedge trimmer” he’s laying into what remains of my locks like a man possessed. No precision cutting here. Grab a clump, lop it off just above the fingers. Again. A bigger clump now – hey, that’s coming off below the fingers! He appears to be just chopping randomly now up to the crown – but I just sit, passively, resigned. And then – it hits me.
Just who had I been trying to kid all these years?
As the shears snip-snipped away, edging ever closer to my head and vying to rival the clippers for closeness, a warm, precious, and slightly gooey, feeling wrapped itself around me. Apprehension? Not a bit of it, this was fun, big style. I must have wanted this all along. All that guff about which image to project, funny stories, sharp clothes all that. Face it, it was always going to be hair. I’d wanted to go short for ages. Really short. Stand-out-from-any-crowd short. Just hadn’t had the guts to do anything about it. Until now. All of a sudden and with hardly any warning, the time and the place had arrived, a time to reveal a fantasy that I barely knew I’d even had. And boy, did this feel good.
The back and sides were finished. The scissors had done their work, roughly blending the huge shaved portion in with the close-cropped upper head and banishing once and for all the notion that careful layering had ever taken place there. So finally to the top, and it’s amazing how quickly thinning scissors can reduce a heavy mass of richly textured tresses to something flat and shapeless. The centre parting consigned to history, I’m suddenly left with straight hair, all combed forward, and an untidy fringe that goes all the way down to the cheekbones. J.S. hadn’t spoken at all throughout the entire session, but now he broke the silence. “May as well take this lot off,” he said. “I’ll give you a high fringe.” And with three snips he went right across my forehead, just like that. And there it was; a short back and sides that would have passed muster in Churchill’s army.
“Short enough for you, ma’am?” ventured the barber, not even waiting for an answer, and did I detect a smidgen of sarcasm in his voice? If so, then it was wasted on me. Achieving a long-time desire, only minutes after first discovering what it was, was liberating to the point of dizziness. I asked for, and got, a dab of hair oil and a straight side parting. Another revelation: you can still feel feminine even if you don’t look it, and I didn’t look it now. In fact it may have been testosterone that was pumping through me now, certainly something was. More possible it was those lovely endorphins, but whatever it was, I knew I had to leave the chair now lest my occupancy become rather, ahem, obvious to all and sundry. I thanked the old man, handed over my £3, plus a £2 tip, and left him scratching his own head in disbelief
Do you know how it feels when you just know people are looking at you? To be more exact, how it feels when you really enjoy the fact that people are looking at you? Well that was me. It wasn’t the first reaction, though; that was a realisation that my head had suddenly come into contact with an icy blast that it had never felt before. Inside though, I was on fire. I’d wanted this haircut all along, without ever realising it, or if I had, had subjugated the desire through a lifetime of pointless conformity. No one would copy this; no one. They wouldn’t want to. This one belonged to me, and me alone. Next day I breezed into the office brimming with feelgood factor. This, after all, was the whole point; only when one feels absolutely right within onself, are they able to give of their best, especially when the ‘big interview’ arrives.
Gasps all round. How predictable.
“Fran, what have you done to yourself?”
“But you had such gorgeous hair!”
“Oh my God, Fran, is that really you?”
Or else embarrassed, deathly silences. Or sniggering. So I stood up, 5 foot 6 inches of firmness and certainty and announced: “You will never understand,” and sat down again. The whole room mumbled, unsure of itself. Right now, my confidence, allied to hard work, preparation, unshakeable faith and indelible image, means promotion is virtually in the bag.
“Mr Cox will see you now.” Now that was a surprise; only one of them to impress, not three as I’d expected. Not to worry. I closed the door and sat down.
“Good morning. Call me Jim.” Then: “Er, um, Miss Francesca Wilton, that is right, isn’t it?” I told him it was. He had a plump face and warm, smiling eyes; that was good. He asked me why I’d thought myself suitable for a management position. I’d thought I was composing my answer, however he butted in: “Don’t be nervous – erm- Miss Wilton. You have nothing to fear here.”
Apart, I mused, from failure. “I know that sir, I…”
“This company,” – interrupted, “how shall I say… this company puts a high priority, and indeed, a high value, on popular diversity. By diversity we mean the make up of the population as a whole, if you see what I mean. Do you see what I mean?” Before I could ask him what on earth he did mean, he was at it again: “Look. I understand. Really I do, probably more that you’ll ever realise. But we strive – no, we are a caring employer with a fully developed equal rights and, um, equal opportunities policy; you have absolutely no need whatsoever to feel – how can I put it – er, vulnerable, if you see what I’m getting at.”
The penny dropped. He’s clocked my haircut and thinks I’m gay. Well why didn’t he just come out and say so? Oh, let it go; I’m not, but what would it matter anyhow? All the same, I was thrown off balance for a few seconds.
“I – I…” To be truthful I wasn’t quite sure though how to proceed from this point, but it didn’t matter as once again my friendly inquisitor took the lead. But he did have a warm smile and kind eyes. His voice had dropped to almost a low whisper, and the tone was almost imploring:
“Please relax, Miss Wilton. It really isn’t important, not these days. In fact it’s probably quite remiss of me to bring the subject up at all.” Then he leant forward, barely audible: “Look. I – I’ll tell you straight out. It’s – it’s, um, my brother. My youngest brother in fact. Many years now… erm… no one bats an eyelid… so you’ve nothing to fear, and I really mean that… You see, I really do understand. He’s a transsexual too.”
I was wrong. There is a glass ceiling. I know because it’s just come crashing down on my head. And it hurts like fuck.