The glass ceiling is a metaphor used to describe an invisible barrier that prevents certain individuals, particularly women and minorities, from advancing to higher positions in their careers.
This phenomenon results in a lack of diversity in leadership roles and perpetuates inequality in the workplace.
The effects of the glass ceiling can be seen in various aspects of society, including income disparities, contributes limited opportunities for career growth, and the perpetuation of stereotypes.
Sociological Definition of the Glass Ceiling
The glass ceiling was a term first used in the 1980s to describe the barriers that prevent certain individuals, particularly women, from advancing to higher positions in the workplace.
Despite their qualifications and achievements, these individuals often face invisible barriers that impede their progress, resulting in a lack of diversity in top-level positions (Gee & Peck, 2018; Bloch et al., 2021).
Below is a starter definition of the glass ceiling:
The glass ceiling is not simply a barrier for an individual, based on the person’s inability to handle a higher-level job. Rather, the glass ceiling applies to women as a group who are kept from advancing higher because they are women. – Federal Glass Ceiling Commission
The above definition focuses specifically on the situation of women in the workplace. This is backed-up by Sandberg, who argue that it affects all women:
The glass ceiling is a symptom of a corporate culture that perpetuates gender stereotypes and discrimination. – Sheryl Sandberg
However, other scholars have also demonstrated that other minorities and marginalized groups also experience discrimination. For example, Yuracko argues:
The glass ceiling is not only about women, but also about people of color, LGBT individuals, and people with disabilities. It is a barrier that affects many groups who are underrepresented in leadership positions. – Kimberly A. Yuracko
Thus, it appears that the glass ceiling works to maintain the marginalization of most historically marginalized groups within the workplace, not just women.
Who is affected by the Glass Ceiling?
Below is a list of some social groups who are affected by the glass ceiling and an explanation of how they are affected:
- Women: Despite progress, women still face a glass ceiling in various fields. They often hold fewer leadership positions and earn less than their male counterparts. This disparity is even more pronounced for women of color and those in male-dominated industries (Bloch et al., 2021; Gee & Peck, 2018).
- Minorities: People of color also face a glass ceiling, as they are often underrepresented in executive positions. Racism and unconscious bias can contribute to this problem, limiting advancement opportunities for qualified individuals (Wilson‐Kovacs et al., 2008; Aksoy et al., 2019).
- LGBTQ+ individuals: The glass ceiling affects members of the LGBTQ+ community, too. Discrimination and prejudice can hinder their career growth and prevent them from reaching leadership positions.
- People with disabilities: People with disabilities face unique challenges in the workplace, including accessibility and discrimination issues. These obstacles can create a glass ceiling that hinders career progression (Nario-Redmond, 2019; Yu, 2020).
- Older workers: Age discrimination can also create a glass ceiling for older workers. They may face stereotypes and biases that make it difficult to advance to higher-level positions or obtain new job opportunities.
Consequences of the Glass Ceiling for Society
The glass ceiling has a range of negative consequences for both individuals and society more generally. Several are outlined below.
- Wage gap: The glass ceiling contributes to the gender wage gap, as women are often held back from higher-paying positions and promotions, leading to a disparity in income (Williams, 2005).
- Limited diversity in leadership: The glass ceiling prevents a variety of perspectives from reaching decision-making levels, which can lead to a lack of innovation and inclusivity in organizations (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012; Nario-Redmond, 2019).
- Perpetuation of gender stereotypes: The glass ceiling reinforces traditional gender roles and expectations, which can further limit opportunities and contribute to gender inequality in the workplace and society.
- Reduced economic growth: The glass ceiling hinders the full utilization of the workforce, preventing women from contributing their skills and talents to the economy, which can result in slower economic growth and development (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2017; Gee & Peck, 2018).
- Impact on families: The glass ceiling can affect the well-being of families by limiting the earning potential of women, putting additional financial pressure on households and potentially impacting work-life balance.
Glass Ceiling vs Glass Escalator
Imagine stepping onto a “glass escalator” – an invisible, smooth ride propelling you upwards in your career. This term captures the often unnoticed advantages men enjoy in professions traditionally dominated by women, such as nursing, teaching, and social work.
Despite their intentions or desires, men in these fields frequently find themselves rapidly ascending into administrative and leadership positions, thanks to gender stereotypes that unfairly paint them as more competent, assertive, and natural leaders (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012).
Furthermore, “Men’s clubs,” also sometimes referred to as “old boys’ clubs,” describe exclusive and informal networks of men who help each other professionally.
These networks can reinforce systemic gender inequalities, contributing to phenomena like the glass ceiling and glass escalator by unintentionally excluding women.
For example, women traditionally do not play golf at nearly the same rate as men. So, when business transactions and exclusive conversations take place on golf courses, women are subtly held back while the men playing golf together are getting a huge advantage (Chisholm-Burns et al., 2017).
Furthermore, social psychology research (Johns, 2013; Maume, 1999) into ingroup favoritism has consistently found that people tend to favor and privilege individuals who are part of their in-group.
In the case of men’s clubs, the in-group is male, and male members may be more likely to mentor, sponsor, and promote other men, further perpetuating the glass escalator phenomenon.
Thus, even in the absence of overt discrimination, unconscious bias can play a significant role.
Ways to Address the Glass Ceiling Phenomenon
Breaking the glass ceiling calls for a blend of tactics that target both organizational cultures and societal norms.
Let’s explore some strategies that can make a difference:
- Equal Opportunity Policies: By implementing policies that promote equal opportunities for everyone, organizations can foster a more inclusive environment. This can include fair hiring and promotion guidelines, flexible work options, equal pay, and parental leave policies (Aksoy et al., 2019).
- Leadership Development Programs: Empowering women with resources to hone their leadership abilities can help them shatter the glass ceiling. This might include mentorship programs, networking opportunities, professional development workshops, and access to relevant conferences and events (Gee & Peck, 2018).
- Mentorship and Sponsorship: Setting up formal mentorship and sponsorship programs can help women forge valuable connections, learn from seasoned professionals, and gain advocates who can guide them through organizational politics and support their advancement.
- Unconscious Bias Training: Tackling unconscious bias in the workplace is vital, as it significantly contributes to the existence of the glass ceiling. Regular unconscious bias training sessions can help employees and managers identify their biases and understand how they might impact their decision-making (Bloch et al., 2021).
- Addressing Workplace Culture: The glass ceiling often persists due to a workplace culture that underestimates women’s contributions or upholds gender role stereotypes. Taking steps to shift the current cultural norms can help dismantle the glass ceiling.
Case Study: Wal-Mart vs Dukes (2011)
An example of the glass ceiling phenomenon can be found in the class-action lawsuit Dukes vs. Walmart Stores, Inc., which took place in the early 2000s.
Betty Dukes and six other female Walmart employees took the retail giant to court for gender discrimination. The women claimed they were paid less than men in similar roles, received fewer promotions, and waited longer for those promotions.
They argued that Walmart’s practices and policies perpetuated a glass ceiling, favoring men over women in both pay and career advancement.
Despite presenting data that showed women held two-thirds of Walmart’s lower-paying hourly jobs and only one-third of managerial positions (and were still paid less than male managers), the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Walmart in 2011.
While the ruling was a blow to the women, and workplace gender equality more broadly, it significantly raised awareness about the glass ceiling phenomenon. The case shed light on the obstacles women face when seeking legal remedies for systemic discrimination and sparked crucial conversations about the importance of companies examining and addressing their internal policies to promote gender equality.
In response to the lawsuit (though denying any wrongdoing), Walmart implemented several policy changes. They began posting all job openings, created a new job classification and pay structure, and introduced a system to monitor the demographics of job and promotion applicants.
The glass ceiling remains a contemporary issue in society, limiting opportunities for growth for many individuals across various sectors. Data clearly shows that women continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions across major workplaces. By challenging systemic and implicit biases, we can work together to dismantle these barriers and promote equal opportunities for all.
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
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]