02/12/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Is the One Most Difficult Thing About Being a Woman in the United States of America in 2014?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Ellen Vrana, Blog: The Runcible Goose

We're not trapped by a glass ceiling; we're trapped by a glass box.

Women are trapped by social norms and systems we didn't create (although we do perpetuate), and it feels there is not enough room for all of us to succeed as we really are.

As a result:

  • Some women build a ladder and climb out, and they help others (if you are part of the chain).
  • Some reach up and grab the hand of a man (one at a time) and get pulled out, with conditions.
  • Some women stay in the box and tell themselves 'it's not a box'.
  • Some women put men in the box to take their place.

And all the while, we kick against each other until we're bruised and battered and tired as hell of fighting to get out.

What we need to do is break the box. Men and women together.

What is this box? Two things: our societal norms (perceptions, expectations) and our systems that perpetuate them.

The box can be hard to see at times. It is hard to see something when it is everywhere you look. It is the absence of it that makes it noticeable. For example, when was the last time we herald the "first man" to do whatever? Meaning, the fact that he was a man -- not a woman -- was significant? When was the last time a company tried to figure out how to get more men on the Board? An unmarried woman in her 40s? She has failed somehow, but a man, similarly positioned, has escaped. When these things are no

longer the case, the box will be gone. As Erica mentions, we have a way to go.

This box is constructed of many things that fall in three domains: expectations, perceptions & systemic conditions, or systems, for simplicity's sake:

Expectation: leaders/managers need to have masculine traits such as being decisive, ruthless, aggressive

Expectation: the primary-care parent exhibits feminine traits such as nurturing, comforting, load-bearing

Perception: if a woman displays masculine characteristics, she is somehow not a real female and is to be viewed with suspicion

Expectation: a woman will want to have children as part of "being a woman"

Perception: When a woman chooses to be a primary care giver (and "forfeits" a career), she must therefore not be ambitious, educated, or talented or else not contributing to the advancement of her gender

Perception: if the woman isn't the primary care giver (and does choose to pursue a career), she must not care about her kids

Expectation: "women's issues" are issues that women alone need to care about

Expectation: a woman must be, in fact, born a woman

Expectation: women must want to be married (of course to a man) to achieve success

• Systems force a woman to choose between having a kid and having a high-powered job

Systems reinforce images of women in the workplace

Systems that look to solve these issues by quota or affirmative action - things that when done well can add to more women in high-places but can also lead to anger, frustration, and the continued view of 'women as women', first and foremost.

Systems that sexually objectify women and lead to the expectation that they appear a certain way

• A system of parenting where most parents raise kids to have the same social norms that they have, so the system is perpetuated

These are just some components that make the glass box. Women run up against a few if not most of these walls all the time. I'd like to explore a few.

Expectations that leaders/managers need to have masculine traits such as strength, decisive, ruthless, aggressive

Put simply, a "masculine leader" is good, a "feminine leader" is bad. This affects not all, but many women. For a woman to rise, she has to suppress feminine attributes. She can't be emotional, she has to be stoic. She cannot be meek, she has to be assertive. She cannot be sexy, she has to be asexual. She cannot be gentle and lead from the side, she has to be decisive.

Lessons on "how to be a good worker" and "how to make it as a woman" or even "how to dress appropriately as a woman" abound at mainstream companies. And these are taught by women to women. As if being female is the determining factor for success. Are men taught how to be less masculine?

Not all women have these characteristics, but some do. And rather than embracing diversity and different skill sets, we apply our age-old paradigm for leadership and ask women to change into someone else or not apply.

Perception that if a woman displays masculine characteristics, she is somehow not a real woman and is to be viewed with suspicion.

Some women, by nature, possess 'masculine' traits more readily than they do 'feminine' traits.

I probably fall in this category. I've never had an issue problem speaking up, being assertive, and I don't get emotional (well no, I get "anger" emotions, not "sad" emotions - for some reason, that is okay). I was readily accepted by men as a colleague.

But I ran into a different problem. My female colleagues seemed to not want me around, my friends were usually male. So I asked a few women about it. Their response was they felt I was saying 'I don't want to be one of you.' So they were saying it back to me. A few even said that I didn't "push the cause." What's even worse, I asked a male friend and he said, I like you because "you're not a girl."

Because I hadn't put my gender at the top of my self-identifiers, I was looked at as "one of the guys" by the guys, and "not one of us" by the women. When in fact, I'm a woman. Plain and simple. Just like the rest. Guess what, we come in all shapes and sizes.

Perception that if the woman chooses to be a primary care giver (and "forfeits" a career), she must therefore not be ambitious, educated, or talented or else not contributing to the advancement of her gender AND perception that if the woman isn't the primary care giver (and does choose to pursue a career), she must not care about her kids.

These are two issues. And because of where I'm from, and where I choose to live, I see both sides.

There are many women in this country who are stay-at-home moms. I grew up around many of them and see them often. And they are bright, lively, strong, caring, loving people who happen to not have paid jobs. I respect them and their choices. But they do not always respect me and mine. In a subtle way, I often get asked when I'm going to have kids, how much I'm working (usually followed by "ooh, that's a lot!", and do I cook. I never got asked about my actual job.

I've heard many stories from friends who pick up kids at school after a harrowing day at work, only to be shunned by the mothers that are there every day, as volunteers, and don't have paying jobs.

The reverse is also true. I used to live in CA and had a conversation with a progressive-minded woman, a doctor. She said; "Women who promote family and marriage and don't work are to be pitied. They are stupid and they don't know enough to want more." And this woman clearly thought she was enlightened. And I said, "Well, my mother is that person, and my sister-in-law, and many of my friends and other relatives. And I respect their choices as do they ours." She responded; "But men as a result feel that they can treat women poorly." To which I responded, "That is on men, these women didn't ask to be disrespected or treated poorly. They aren't sanctioning it." I did not add that she was treating these women as poorly as any man ever did, because it was clear we weren't getting anywhere.

What I find most scary is how little these two "types", if you will, interact with each other day to day. Slowly they each get into their own corners and push against the "idea" of the other in order to get more room - and respect - for themselves.

Pushing against other women is not the answer. Celebrating and encouraging all women is the answer. There is room for all of us once we get out of the box.

Systems that force a woman to choose between having a kid and having a high-powered job

The fact is women who want kids have to make a choice; great career or kids. Because chances are our husbands are not making that choice or are not expected (or supported) to make that choice. There are various reasons for this, I think lack of paternity leave is a huge factor.

Anne W Zahra discusses the perspective of women who do not even have an option to choose well.

Systems that sexually objectify women and lead to expectation that they appear a certain way

Ads, celebrities, magazines: There are endless ways in which women are directed "how to be a woman." There is nothing wrong with celebrating the female body, its variation and beauty. There is something wrong with sexualizing it to a point where she ceases to be a woman and starts to be a sexual object.

There is something wrong with these forced standards of beauty that create some level of hierarchy on who is beautiful and who isn't (and those that aren't part of the socially-constructed beauty are somehow less or missing something).

When people talk about the patriarchal systems which were created generations ago and that are perpetuated to today, this is what they mean. Yes, there are women who break through and rise to the top and yes, it is easier now than ever to do so.

But as long as we are talking about it using words like "breaking through" and "rising to the top," we have a long way to go.

Let me be clear, I don't see these anachronistic structures as the fault of today's society. They go back hundreds of years. I also don't look at men and think they are misogynist or solely to blame. But I do think men, and women, are guilty of being ignorant -- not seeing where this box exists and complacent, not caring enough to fix it.

So this is what I see as the main issue. And it's up to all of us to change our expectations and systems lest they get passed on again and again.

 A few caveats:

• I made generalizations for the purpose of answering.

• This is MY perspective, I'm not pretending to speak on behalf of women everywhere.

• When I say 'masculine' and 'feminine', I do not mean it to be synonymous with 'male' and 'female'. Many people fall outside those definitions, including men.

• There are many other issues facing women that vary by country, this is a western-based perspective based on my experience growing up and living in western societies mostly.

• Men also have glass boxes. It is a mistake to think they are free and liberated. Read more here.

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