UPDATED BY
Hal Koss | Sep 27, 2022

The term glass ceiling is a metaphor describing the invisible barrier women and people from other marginalized groups face when trying to reach higher levels of professional success. These barriers aren’t official corporate policy; rather, they are unspoken but implicitly understood biases entrenched in organizational hierarchies that keep certain individuals from advancing into senior management positions, regardless of the person’s qualifications.

If people leaders don’t take intentional steps to bolster their organization’s DEI efforts, the glass ceiling may persist and negatively affect company culture.

 

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What Is the Glass Ceiling?

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.

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 the publication of the 1984 book The Working Woman Report and a 1986 Wall Street Journal article on the topic.

Although progress has been made in the decades since, you can detect the glass ceiling is still something women face today. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women’s wages were 18 percent lower than men’s, on average, and a 2017 Pew Research Survey revealed that 42 percent of women in the United States report having faced workplace gender discrimination. Plus, when it comes to Fortune 500 companies, less than 9 percent of the firms’ CEO roles are occupied by women.

Women play an increasingly vital role in today’s labor force — by 2024, women could make up 47.2 percent of workers — but there’s a long way to go to even the playing field. 

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.

 

Examples of the Glass Ceiling

Many women face various instances of bias in the workplace. These experiences may include:

  • 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.
  • Not receiving a promotion.
  • Getting rejected from a job.

 

Reasons for the Glass Ceiling

A few factors have contributed to the development of the glass ceiling and common gender discrepancies in the workplace.

 

Gender Roles

Gender roles are social constructs unique to different cultures that are assigned to individuals the moment their sex is identified. From this point on, children are more-or-less categorized in a binary of either male or female genders. These roles are later translated into academic interests and professional careers. 

In American culture, women are expected to be polite, accommodating and nurturing, whereas men are expected to be competitive, aggressive and fearless. In the workplace, managers and leaders are also sometimes expected to be competitive, aggressive and fearless in order to make strong business decisions and lead a team to success. Such differences in gender roles can potentially put women and men at odds with their  academic and professional goals. 

Women are often stereotyped in taking the lead role in raising children, cooking, cleaning, running errands and preparing dinner. Having all of these additional expectations placed on women does not exactly help them balance career, build a family and have a personal life of their own.

In addition to gender roles, gender biases and stereotypes also limit women from moving up in their careers.

Women are often stereotyped in taking the lead role in raising children, cooking, cleaning, running errands and preparing dinner. Having all of these additional expectations placed on women does not exactly help them balance career, build a family and have a personal life of their own.

In addition to gender roles, gender biases and stereotypes also limit women from moving up in their careers.

 

Gender Bias

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. In the same Pew Research Study that revealed 42 percent of women say they have faced gender discrimination on the job, it was found that just 22 percent of men experience discrimination in the workplace.

But it’s not just how women are treated, it’s also how they’re viewed by peers and leaders. At companies where women make up 10 percent of leadership and men 90 percent, half of men perceive women as being well-represented.

 

Sexual Harassment

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

A staggering 68 percent of women experience sexual harassment. And of the women who experience sexual harassment, 70 percent  report the harassment occurred at their place of work. Not only that, but 47 percent of female survey respondents said they believe sexual harassment is tolerated at their organization.

Additionally, 45 percent of women do not have confidence that senior leadership at their organization will address the issue, while another study found that 3 out of 4 sexual harassment victims experience retaliation after reporting the harassment to their employers.

Instead of reporting the harassment, women are quitting their jobs to start somewhere else. One study found 80 percent of women who experience sexual harassment within the first two years at a new job will quit.

 

Psychological Factors

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 recommendations about people they may not know directly, they make hiring and promotion decisions based on the limited information they have. 

In many circumstances, the decision to hire or promote someone can be influenced by something as peripheral as being from the same hometown or playing the same sports. Instead, employers should hire or promote individuals that will ‘add’ to the organization in a new and innovative way rather than fit in with the current team.

Related ReadingWant to Make Tech a Better Place? Start With Inclusive Recruiting.

 

How to Break the Glass Ceiling

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.

Blind applications increase a woman’s chance of getting a job by 25 to 46 percent, while another study found resumes with African American-sounding names were 14 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 will help ensure that your team is on the same page. It can also initiate a conversation 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 career.

 

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.

Related ReadingHow Your Company Can Achieve Pay Equity and Transparency

 

Glass Ceiling Changes Shape Over Time

Although glass ceiling is the more widely used phrase, there are a number of other related terms to know.

 

Pink-Collar

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.

 

Maternal Wall

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 their 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.

 

Bamboo Ceiling

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.

 

Concrete Ceiling

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.

 

Glass Escalator

Coined in 1992 by Christine L. Williams, the “glass escalator” refers to men who tap into female-dominated fields and accelerate into higher positions.

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Dawn Kawamoto contributed reporting to this story.

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