The glass ceiling is “a metaphor for the invisible and artificial barriers that block women and minorities from advancing up the corporate ladder to management and executive positions” (Merida, 2013, p. 1).
The metaphor can be applied generally to the difficulties experienced by women and individuals of different minority groups to go beyond a certain point in any occupation or profession, regardless of their education or previous achievements.
While it was originally used to describe the experiences of women in the workplace, nowadays, ethnic background, as well as disability and sexual orientation, are also seen as being part and parcel of the effects of the glass ceiling.
The glass ceiling refers both to impediments and invisible barriers that women, ethnic minorities, and other groups, such as disabled or gay people, encounter in the workplace and that stop them from advancing professionally past a certain point.
The term was coined in 1978 by Marylin Loden, a managerial consultant in a Telecoms company in the US who was taking part in a panel discussion about women’s aspirations.
Marylin argued that it was cultural barriers (the “invisible glass ceiling”) not personal ones that stopped women from advancing in their careers.
The glass ceiling can be found in all domains and in all types of organizations, whether public or private. The barriers are thought of as invisible because they are not defined corporate policies, but rather norms or implicit biases that are accepted.
Breaking the glass ceiling is a difficult task, and doing it means overcoming all the barriers and obstacles that are put on the way. The importance of breaking the glass ceiling lies in that it can help remove barriers for others who are in a similar position.
Real-Life Glass Ceiling Examples
- First Female Leader of the Fortune 500: The Fortune 500 CEO glass ceiling was broken by Katharine Graham in 1963 when she became CEO of the Washington Post.
- First Gay Sitcom Character: Ellen DeGeneres broke a gay glass ceiling by stealth. She was already the lead character on her own sitcom when she decided to write her coming out into the show. Whether she would have gotten a prominent role in Hollywood in the 90s as an open LGBT person is open for question – buy many think it’s unlikely.
- Oprah: Oprah Winfrey broke glass ceilings in media by becoming the first African American woman talk show host, and then became the first female African American billionaire in 2003.
- Martha Stewart: Martha Stewart just beat Oprah to a ceiling shattering record when, 3 years before Oprah, she became the first self-made female billionaire in the United States.
- Women in Congress: Despite the fact that women represent about 50% of the US population, only 27% of congresspeople are women.
- No Female US President: One of the starkest representations of the glass ceiling is that there has never been a female president of the United States, despite the fact many women have aspired to high office and tried to work their way up in the man’s world of politics. The closest female to the office was Hillary Clinton, who said she wanted to shatter the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
- Obama as First Black Presidents: Despite the fact that 13% of the US population is black, there has only ever been one black president.
- Lack of Female CEOs: Only 24 of the top 500 companies are run by women, demonstrating the difficulties women face in climbing the corporate ladder.
- Female Head Teachers: It is only recently that women have started to occupy high-up positions within organizations, demonstrating cracks in the glass ceiling. But even in feminized professions, the higher-up posts are proportionally more male. For example, despite 74% of teachers being women, they represent 65% of head teacher positions in the UK.
- Female Vice Presidents: Just as there has been a lack of female presidents, we can see that there is also a historical lack of female vice presidents. Kamala Harris was the first.
Causes of the Glass Ceiling
- Discrimination against potential mothers: Women who are entering an age where they may have children may not be offered promotions at the workplace, while paternity is not contemplated amongst men of the same birth cohort.
- People from ethnic minority backgrounds are sometimes left behind in their careers due to discriminatory hiring practices in the workplace.
- Gender stereotypes: Sexist stereotypes, for example, thinking of women as more emotional and unable to fulfill leadership roles, contribute to the perpetuation of the glass ceiling
- Exclusion from informal networks: Women are often locked out from “informal networks”, for example, going for afterwork drinks with managers, which puts them at a disadvantage in career advancement.
- The gay glass ceiling: Homosexual men’s careers also feel the impact of glass ceilings as research has found they are often concentrated in low-level managerial positions, not at the top (Aksoy et al., 2019).
- Discrimination against gay people: People with disabilities have been found to have difficulties both entering the job market and then advancing in their careers once they have secured a job.
- Intersectional discrimination: Ethnic minority women often suffer double discrimination when it comes to workplace promotion, and may find it harder to shatter the glass ceiling.
- Unnoticed effort: Women trying harder at their job by, for example, trying to make their ideas stand up as a meeting, is also an example of the effects of the glass ceiling (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2017).
- Motherhood as a barrier: Motherhood often penalizes women when it comes to advancing in their careers, while it is not the same for fathers, who keep on climbing their professional career.
- Ageism: Ageism glass ceiling refers to older people, over 50, being disregarded for higher level positions despite their experience and tenure
Attempts to Address the Glass Ceiling
The debate over how to address the glass ceiling generally revolves around how aggressively governments or corporations should intervene to achieve equality of representation.
Below are some common solutions and the arguments for and against each.
1. Affirmative Action
Affirmative action refers to policies to intentionally hire or preference underrepresented groups. On a macro scale, this gets underrepresented people into positions of power and helps achieve political and sociological goals.
However, critics argue that it restrains hiring committees and may lead to worse performance. If the best candidate is a male, for example, then the company should have the freedom to choose the male candidate.
Furthermore, this policy may instill a sense that women only got the job because of their gender identity. To challenge this point, however, we could argue that historically men have only gotten leadership positions because of their gender identities, too.
Like affirmative action, quotas are used to put pressure on an organization to hire underrepresented groups.
An example of a quota might be “to ensure 60% of new hires are women.” This allows a hiring committee to split the hiring pool – so, for example, they can hire 4 men and 6 women in a hiring round when they hire 10 people.
In politics, it might mean that a party will decide that 50% of their candidates will be women in the next election. one complaint about this, however, has been that the parties will run women in regions where they will definitely lose, and run men in the more desirable or competitive races, leading to more men getting elected in the end.
3. Scholarships and Internships
A less coercive policy is to offer scholarships and internships to underrepresented groups.
This approach aims to give people from underrepresented groups the best chance possible to succeed in interviews, without actually forcing the hand of the interviewers.
The criticism of this policy is that it doesn’t do anything to tangibly address implicit biases that hiring committees have that will lead them to hiring male or racial majority candidates, even if the female or minority candidates are better.
Research and Case Studies
Gender bias leading to the glass ceiling was tested in a study conducted in 2012 at the University of Yale (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). A group of researchers created two identical CVs, but one had a woman’s name on it (Jennifer), while the other one was a man (John).
The CVs were randomly sent to different university departments for assessment. The results showed that resumes were not evaluated just on the merits shown: Jennifer was considered less competent, universities were less willing to hire her as a lab manager and even the salary they would offer her was 13% less than John’s.
Research conducted in the UK showed that gay men were more likely to be in managerial positions or have supervisory responsibilities than heterosexual similar men (Giray Aksoy et al., 2019).
However, a more detailed look showed that the managerial positions held were at the lower level of the scale. The highest level managerial positions were harder to reach for gay men than otherwise similar heterosexual men.
For lesbians, the results were similar. While compared to heterosexual women, lesbians were more likely to have managerial authority, but like gay men, they were less likely to be in the highest managerial or supervisory roles.
There was evidence related to discriminatory practices and also of intersectionality: what has been called the “gay glass ceiling effect” was stronger for ethnic minorities than for whites.
3. Disability Research
The glass ceiling, its obstacles, and barriers also affect the work life of people living with disabilities (Nario-Redmond, 2019). A mix of organizational and attitudinal barriers makes it harder for people with disabilities to advance in their careers.
Research has shown that people with disabilities are still concentrated and over-represented in lower-paid service jobs (Nario-Redmond, 2019; Wilson-Kovacsa et al., 2008). However, in higher-paid managerial and professional positions, they are under-represented.
This situation happens despite the fact that people with disabilities often have equivalent qualifications and work experience as non-disabled work colleagues. And still, they have less opportunities of upward mobility, meaning that the glass ceiling is on full force.
Go Deeper: The Social Construction of Disability
4. Race and Ethnicity Research
Ethnic and racial minorities also see their career advancement halted by the existence of a glass ceiling (Gee & Peck, 2018).
Studies from the US show, for example, that race is a stronger factor than gender in determining a person’s chances of being promoted or holding higher managerial positions (Gee & Peck, 2018). This points at the importance of intersectionality when thinking about the glass ceiling (Bloch et al., 2020).
Also, not all ethnic minorities have the same trajectories. In the US context Asians, for example, may be more likely to be hired, but the least likely to be promoted. This has come to be called “the bamboo ceiling” (Yu, 2020).
Women of childbearing age, pregnant women and those with children are all subjected to the effects of the glass ceiling (Williams, 2015).
Motherhood, or its prospect, seems to be a factor in determining women’s career projections and advancements. Fatherhood, however, does not affect men’s professional lives in the same manner, pointing at gender bias and inequality.
What has come to be called the “maternal wall”, is a situation in which women do not even reach the “glass ceiling” due to a type of gender bias related to their reproductive rights.
The “maternal wall” is constructed around the stereotyped ideas about women’s role in the family, which still assumes all responsibility falls on her.
The glass ceiling is a phenomenon affecting the structure of workplaces in contemporary society, that is linked with unfair and stereotyped ideas about women, ethnic minorities, people living with disabilities or sexual minorities, amongst others.
The glass ceiling has a negative effect on those individuals and groups of people as it stops them from advancing in their professional careers.
The barriers that glass ceilings put in place are biased because they are not based on objective factors. Rather, people with similar qualifications or work experience will not be promoted based on prejudice and discrimination.
Aksoy, C. G., Carpenter, C. S., Frank, J., & Huffman, M. L. (2019). Gay glass ceilings: Sexual orientation and workplace authority in the UK. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 159, 167-180.
Bloch, K. R., Taylor, T., Church, J., & Buck, A. (2021). An intersectional approach to the glass ceiling: Gender, race and share of middle and senior management in US workplaces. Sex Roles, 84(5), 312-325.
Chisholm-Burns, M. A., Spivey, C. A., Hagemann, T., & Josephson, M. A. (2017). Women in leadership and the bewildering glass ceiling. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 74(5), 312-324.
Gee, B., & Peck, D. (2018). Metrics of the glass ceiling at the intersection of race and gender. Strategic HR Review, 17(3), 110-118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1108/SHR-03-2018-0023
Johns, M. L. (2013). Breaking the glass ceiling: Structural, cultural, and organizational barriers preventing women from achieving senior and executive positions. Perspectives in health information management, (Winter).
Maume Jr, D. J. (1999). Glass ceilings and glass escalators: Occupational segregation and race and sex differences in managerial promotions. Work and occupations, 26(4), 483-509.
Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.
Nario-Redmond, M. R. (2019). Ableism: The causes and consequences of disability prejudice. London: John Wiley & Sons.
Williams, J. C. (2005). The glass ceiling and the maternal wall in academia. New Directions for Higher Education, 2005(130), 91-105.
Wilson‐Kovacs, D., Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., & Rabinovich, A. (2008). ‘Just because you can get a wheelchair in the building doesn’t necessarily mean that you can still participate’: barriers to the career advancement of disabled professionals. Disability & Society, 23(7), 705-717.
Yu, H. H. (2020). Revisiting the bamboo ceiling: Perceptions from Asian Americans on experiencing workplace discrimination. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 11(3), 158. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/aap0000193