The glass ceiling is a metaphor describing the invisible barrier women and other marginalized groups face when trying to reach higher levels of professional success. These barriers aren’t official corporate policy; rather, they are implicitly understood biases entrenched in organizational hierarchies that keep certain individuals from advancing into senior management positions, regardless of the person’s qualifications.
Glass Ceiling Definition
The term “glass ceiling” is a metaphor for the barriers preventing women and other marginalized people from reaching higher levels of professional success.
While women are the group to which the term glass ceiling originally and primarily refers, individuals from other historically underrepresented groups are also often held back by the deeply ingrained cultural biases that exist within organizations.
To be sure, progress has been made in the workplace over the past several decades. But you can detect the glass ceiling is still something women face today. In 2023, women’s median earnings were only 83 percent of mens’ median earnings, while just over 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies had women in CEO positions.
And the glass ceiling shows up in a variety of ways, with plenty of negative effects:
Effects of the Glass Ceiling
- Receiving less pay than colleagues of a different gender who do the same job.
- Being passed over for promotions or other important career opportunities.
- Experiencing microaggressions regularly.
- Feeling isolated.
- Being treated as incompetent.
- Getting rejected from a job.
There’s a long way to go to even the playing field. If business leaders and HR professionals don’t take intentional steps to bolster their organization’s DEI efforts to empower women and marginalized groups, the glass ceiling may persist and negatively affect company culture.
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Understanding the Glass Ceiling
The term glass ceiling was first used in 1978 by writer and consultant Marilyn Loden at a panelist discussion about women in the workplace. Loden described the cultural challenges women face when their careers stagnate at middle-management roles, preventing them from attaining higher leadership or executive positions. The term was further popularized in the mid-1980s with a 1984 Adweek profile of Gay Bryant, the publication of the 1984 book The Working Woman Report and a 1986 Wall Street Journal article on the topic.
In the decades since the term was coined, women have made notable gains in the workforce. The number of employed U.S. women rose to 74 million in 2022, compared to less than 54 million in 1990. Women also make up more than half of college-educated workers in the U.S.
At the same time, women are often encouraged to pursue jobs that leave them vulnerable to economic downturns, with the most recent recession leading to over one million women leaving the workforce. On an international scale, 86 countries place women under job restrictions while 95 countries still don’t guarantee equal pay (and even in countries that do guarantee equal pay, like the U.S., gender-based pay gaps persist).
As more women enter the workforce, the glass ceiling’s lingering presence becomes impossible for businesses to ignore. To better understand this concept — and what can be done about it — let’s look at some of the factors that contribute to it.
Gender roles are social constructs unique to different cultures that are assigned to individuals the moment their sex is identified. In American culture specifically, women are often expected to be polite, accommodating and nurturing, which often nudges them to pursue caretaking roles.
So despite their career aspirations, women continue to shoulder the brunt of household chores. Juggling these responsibilities often places added stress and pressure on women as they attempt to rise up the corporate ranks, competing for jobs with men who don’t face the same expectations.
Gender bias refers to the tendency people have to prefer one gender over another. In the workplace, this bias tends to negatively affect women significantly more than men. A 2017 Pew Research study revealed that 42 percent of women faced gender-based discrimination in the workplace, compared to just 22 percent of men. The picture becomes bleaker for women of color, with 51 percent reporting experiences of racism and discrimination.
A major contributor to how women are treated is how they’re perceived. According to Lean In’s Women in the Workplace study, women leaders are two times more likely than their male counterparts to be mistaken for more junior workers. These biases make it harder for women to reach and thrive in positions of power.
Women continue to face sexual harassment in the workplace. Between 2018 and 2021, women filed 78 percent of the 27,291 sexual harassment charges to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And 59 percent of women have experienced microaggressions and sexual harassment while at work.
If companies don’t take steps to handle this issue, they risk losing employees and derailing women’s careers: Not only do 38 percent of women who experience sexual harassment leave their jobs early, but 37 percent suffer impacts to their career advancement.
Additional Unconscious Biases
It is human nature to like and be attracted to others who share similar interests, experiences and appearances to our own. This is especially true when we first come in contact with a new person. Studies show people are significantly more inclined to like a stranger if they have something in common — even without first meeting in person.
Recruiters, HR professionals, hiring managers and executives experience this exact scenario virtually every day. When they review resumes, performance reports and letters of recommendation about people they may not know directly, they make hiring and promotion decisions based on the limited information they have.
Pretending like underlying assumptions don’t matter leaves women unprotected against unfair assumptions that can chip away at their career opportunities.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling and Promoting Gender Equity
Once you’ve got a solid grasp on how the glass ceiling operates, spark conversations with others. Help them understand what the barriers and challenges are, why those problems exist and how they can improve the workplace. Such conversations can be complex, but if you share your own knowledge and resources, it will shine light on the topic among your colleagues and peers. These conversations will also undoubtedly advance your knowledge on the subject, how others view it and vice versa.
How to Break the Glass Ceiling
- Conduct blind applicant screenings.
- Implement regular bias and stereotype training.
- Set diversity hiring and promotion goals.
- Provide company-wide transparency.
Conduct Blind Screenings
Consider making your application and screening processes blind in order to reduce unconscious bias when hiring and promoting employees. Blind screenings exclude information about candidates, like their name, interests and experiences that are unrelated to the role, which may reveal their assumed gender, race or ethnicity.
Symphony orchestras have implemented blind auditions with great success, boosting a female musician’s chances of advancing past the first audition by 50 percent.
Blind applications increase a woman’s chance of getting a job by 25 to 46 percent, while another study found resumes with Black-sounding names were 10 percent less likely to receive a call-back than resumes with white-sounding names. Blind screenings are a simple way to compare candidates based on skills and experiences and diminish potential biases that come with reading over strangers’ resumes.
Implement Regular Bias and Stereotype Training
Bringing in a diversity and inclusion expert or implementing unconscious bias training can initiate conversations that people are either reluctant to have or are unsure of where to start. Implicit biases are challenging topics to cover, especially when you have a diverse team of individuals with different experiences and opinions that will likely arise during such conversations. Having an expert in the room will take the pressure off your team and ensure the conversations are productive and inclusive.
Consider providing additional training for managers and executives because they are the people who are hiring and promoting individuals. You want to ensure your leadership team is able to support individual contributors in all aspects of their careers.
Set Diversity Hiring and Promoting Goals
To actually walk the walk, you need to set diversity hiring and promoting goals. Start by assessing how diverse your company is and identify which demographics are noticeably absent from your company. Document this by department, team and seniority levels to help you set goals based on the facts.
Ask for anonymous feedback from your employees about where they have experienced bias, microaggressions, harassment and barriers in their careers and specifically at your company. This information will create a clear benchmark of where you are today and help you determine the next steps for improving diversity and breaking down the glass ceiling within your company.
Examples and Variations of the Glass Ceiling Effect
Although “glass ceiling” is the more widely used phrase, there are a number of other related terms to know.
Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam first mentioned the term “glass cliff” in 2003 to refute an article by The Times that suggested women were responsible for organizational shortcomings. The glass cliff refers to when women leaders are promoted to leadership positions only during difficult times when failure is more likely. Companies can combat the glass cliff effect by building a holistic DEI culture that accounts for the issues women and marginalized groups face.
In the 1970s, as the Women’s Liberation Movement supported more and more women in the workforce, larger discussions arose around the distinct pay discrepancy between men and women of similar roles and experiences. From this gender discrepancy, the term “pink-collar” was coined. Pink-collar jobs were paid less than both white- and blue-collared jobs, which typically were held by men, and required less schooling than white-collar jobs.
Coined in 1992 by Christine L. Williams, the “glass escalator” refers to men who tap into female-dominated fields and accelerate into higher positions. An example of a female-dominated field where the glass escalator occurs is nursing. Males make up just 10 percent of the nursing workforce, yet they occupy almost half of leadership positions.
Additionally, in 2005, Jane Hyun coined the phrase “bamboo ceiling” to describe the barriers Asians and Asian Americans face in achieving upper-level professional success in the United States. In addition to the workplace microaggressions they face, Asians and Asian Americans must grapple with societal anti-Asian violence and racism that could influence company culture if leaders don’t take proper measures to address this issue.
While the glass ceiling originally referred to women, it’s clear that women of color face an even tougher barrier — a “concrete ceiling.” This term was coined in 2016 by Jasmine Babers to describe the significantly tougher hurdle women of color face in reaching elevated success in their careers. This term builds on the concept of “double jeopardy,” arguing that women of color must deal with both racism and sexism.
Pregnant women, working mothers and even women of childbearing age may face what is referred to as a “maternal wall.” Certain stereotypes related to women’s role in the family and needing to take time off after birth and for childcare often place women at a disadvantage in their careers compared to men and fathers. Some refer to these stereotypes collectively as the “motherhood penalty,” pointing out the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers.
Labyrinth of Leadership
The labyrinth of leadership is a term introduced in 2007 by researchers Alice H. Eagly and Linda Carli. Believing that ‘glass ceiling’ is outdated, the pair proposed a different phrase that better describes the complex challenges women face throughout their careers. Eagly and Linda claim women often have to navigate additional twists and turns to advance up the corporate ladder, making the labyrinth of leadership a more appropriate phrase.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is the glass ceiling?
The glass ceiling is a metaphor for the invisible barriers women and people of marginalized groups face when trying to advance to higher-level positions. These barriers are implicit biases found within organizational structures and cultures, not official company policies.
Why is it called a glass ceiling?
The term ‘glass ceiling’ refers to the invisible nature of the barriers preventing women and people of marginalized groups from reaching higher positions. They can still see these positions through the invisible barriers, but they cannot reach them due to these same barriers.
How do I identify a glass ceiling?
Signs you’ve hit a glass ceiling include noticing a lack of diversity at the leadership level, your company refusing to promote from within, being overqualified for your current role and your manager ignoring your goals and not giving you challenging work.