What Is the Glass Ceiling and How Do We Break It?
Back in the day, if you heard the phrase 'breaking the glass ceiling,' you may have envisioned that epic scene from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" where the elevator dramatically smashes through the glass ceiling of the factory. Nowadays, the phrase refers to a much more nefarious metaphor and we certainly wish the glass ceiling we are talking about was as innocent and easy to break through. Instead, the glass ceiling pertains to upper-level workforce opportunities proven to be impenetrable to the vast majority of minorities and women.
We've created this guide to help you and your teams better understand what the glass ceiling is, who it affects, why it exists and how you can help break down such barriers and build a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
Glass Ceiling Definition
Click on the links below to skip ahead or read on for the definition.
- Glass Ceiling Definition
- Statistics Related to the Glass Ceiling
- Why Is There a Glass Ceiling?
- Ways to Combat the Glass Ceiling
Glass Ceiling Definition
Glass ceiling is a metaphor for the evident but intangible hierarchical impediment that prevents minorities and women from achieving elevated professional success.
The term was first popularized in the 80s to describe the challenges women face when their careers stagnate at middle-management roles, preventing them from achieving higher leadership or executive roles. Although glass ceiling is the more widely-used phrase, there are a number of other related terms to know.
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 ghetto” was coined. Pink-collar jobs were paid less than both white and blue-collared jobs (typically held by men) and required less schooling than white-collar jobs.
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.
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.
While the glass ceiling originally referred to women (in general), 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.
Coined in 1992 by Christine L. Williams, the "glass escalator" refers to men who tap into female-dominated fields and accelerate into higher positions. It has also been suggested that men enter female-dominated industries in an effort to obtain job stability, financial security and better family benefits.
Now that you have a better understanding of what the glass ceiling is, let's take a look at some statistically-backed facts about the clear barriers women and minorities face in the workplace.
Statistics About the Glass Ceiling
Although invisible, the glass ceiling is very real, and there are plenty of statistics to back the metaphor we just discussed. Here are a few statistics to give you an idea of how such barriers affect minorities and women.
- Both male and female managers are twice as likely to hire men over women.
- Women are 25-46% more likely to be hired with blind applications.
- 40% of people notice a double standard against female candidates.
- At companies where 90% of leadership is men, half of men at the company view women as being well-represented.
- Men are 30% more likely to achieve managerial roles.
- Only 38.6% of managerial roles are held by women.
- Just 10% of leadership in the workplace is represented by women.
- 34% of people see male executives as better risk assessors.
- Women make up 23% of C-Suites.
- Women of color make up 4% of C-Suites.
- Women make up 4.1% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
- Only 3% of Fortune 500 companies have at least one Hispanic or Latinx member on their board of directors.
- Less than 19% of managers are Asian or Asian American.
- 14% of executives are Asian or Asian American.
- Contrary to popular belief, men and women ask for pay raises at the same rate.
- Women receive pay raises 5% less often than men.
Those are some startling statistics. You may be wondering, how was the glass ceiling created and why does it persist? Without getting into the long and complicated history of men and women in the workplace, let's look at some aspects of our culture that has contributed to the creation and persistence of such barriers.
Why Is There a Glass Ceiling?
Despite making up 50.8% of the U.S. population and 58.2% of the civil labor force, women are staggeringly absent from upper-level positions in the American workforce. While there is a long history of women’s role in the American workforce — between wars, social movements and political climates — little progress has been made in the way of gender equality in the workplace.
Let’s consider a few factors that contributed to the development of the glass ceiling and common gender discrepancies in the workplace.
Unfortunately, it is human nature to like and be attracted to others who share similar interests, experiences and even appearances to our own. This is especially true when we first come in contact with a new person. Studies have found that when people first read about a stranger — without meeting them — they are significantly more inclined to ‘like’ the stranger if they have something in common. This makes sense since people enjoy connecting with other humans, and when you only have a little bit of information about a stranger, commonalities form the basis for personal connections.
But in what circumstance would you read about a stranger before actually meeting them? This exact scenario happens day in and day out for recruiters, HR professionals, hiring managers and executives. When they review resumes, performance reports and letters of recommendations about people they may not know directly, they make hiring and promoting decisions based on the limited information they have.
And for people in a position of power and authority, working with someone they believe to have a connection with and will work well with is enough for them to promote someone. In many circumstances, the decision to hire or promote someone can be influenced by something as peripheral as being in the same fraternity/sorority or coming from a similar background. 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.
Psychologically, we can understand that if cisgender white men are predominantly in positions of power, they are going to perpetuate the trend of hiring and promoting individuals who are similar to them.
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 segregated into a binary of either male or female genders. These roles are later translated into academic interests and professional careers. One example where this segregation is evident in the workplace is between office and clerical jobs, where women make up 75.6% of roles, compared to craft work, where women hold only 7.3% of roles.
In American culture, girls are generally expected to be feminine and therefore polite, accommodating and nurturing, whereas boys are expected to be masculine and therefore competitive, aggressive and fearless. In the workplace, managers and leaders are expected to be competitive, aggressive and fearless — aka masculine — in order to make strong business decisions and lead a team to success. Such differences in gender roles limit and can even punish women in their academic and professional careers who aspire to reach upper-level or leadership positions.
Plus, it doesn’t help that women are stereotypically expected to raise children, cook, clean, run errands and prepare dinner. Having all of these additional expectations placed on women doesn’t exactly help them balance a 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, which we’ll cover in the next section.
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 it does men. As we mentioned in the statistics above, 40% of people say they notice a double standard against female candidates. Not only that, but both men and women who are hiring managers are significantly more likely to hire a man over a woman, so much so that men are 1.5x more likely to be hired over women.
For the women who do make it past the job interview, the bias doesn’t stop there. One study found that more than 42% of women (compared to 22% of men) experience discrimination in the workplace. Those acts of discrimination come in the form of:
- Earning less than men who do the same job
- Being treated as incompetent
- Experiencing microaggressions regularly
- Receiving less support than men who do the same job
- Missing out on important career opportunities
- Feeling isolated
- Not receiving a promotion
- Getting rejected from a job
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% of leadership (meaning men make up 90% of leadership), half of men perceive women as being well-represented.
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% of women experience sexual harassment. And of the women who experience sexual harassment, 70% say the harassment occurred at their place of work. Not only that, but 47% of female survey respondents said they believed sexual harassment is tolerated at their organization.
Additionally, 45% of women do not have confidence that senior leadership at their organization will address the issue. And if that wasn’t bad enough, 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 completely to start over somewhere else. One study found that of the women who experience sexual harassment within the first two years at a new job, 80% of them quit. No wonder it’s so difficult for women to reach higher-level roles when many of them are faced with these challenges early in their careers.
It should also be noted that while both men and women do experience sexual harassment, nearly 75% of sexual harassment claims filed to the EEOC are filed by women.
Now that we've identified and outlined the problem, let's take a look at some ways we can all work together to break down these barriers.
Ways to Combat the Glass Ceiling
Understand the Glass Ceiling
By now, you should have a strong understanding of what the glass ceiling is, the different types of barriers women and minorities face and some high-level ideas around why and how such barriers exist. Understanding this is the foundation of combating such barriers, and you can’t do it alone.
Talk about 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 glass ceiling is, why it exists and how they can help break it. Such conversations can be challenging and complex, but if you compassionately listen and 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.
Conduct Blind Screenings
In order to reduce unconscious bias when hiring and promoting employees, consider making your application and screening processes blind. Blind screenings exclude information about candidates, like their name, interests and experiences (unrelated to the role), that may reveal their assumed gender, race or ethnicity.
As we mentioned above, blind applications increase a woman’s chance of getting a job by 25-46% and not only that, but women were also more likely to be hired.
Another study found that resumes with African American-sounding names were 14% 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 some of the 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 ensure your leadership team is able to support individual contributors in all aspects of their career.
Support Sexual Harassment Survivors
Yes, this is a very challenging topic, especially when you look back at the statistics. It’s no surprise that women would rather quit their job than bring up such a topic with a leader at their company or even HR. As a company, you should have readily available resources for anyone at your company to anonymously file a complaint. Not only is this a moral expectation, but if you don’t, you will continue to lose great employees and potentially keep offenders on your team until someone is brave enough to come forward. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the resources available on RAINN.
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 identifying 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.
Also, 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.
Establish Anti-Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Policies
Most companies establish themselves as an equal opportunity employer and define this with an equal opportunity employer policy statement on their career page, employee handbook and job descriptions. There are a number of variations of these statements, so if you don’t already have one, do some research to identify the right language and policies that reflect your company, mission and values.
At the same time, while having these policies in place are critical to supporting and protecting your employees, your actions — above everything — will speak much louder than your words.
Know the Anti-Discrimination Laws
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created laws that make it illegal for companies and people to discriminate against:
- Someone on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
- A woman because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth
- Someone 40 or older because of age
- A qualified person with a disability in the private sector and in state and local governments as well as in the federal government
- Employees or applicants because of genetic information
- A person who complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit
They also state that “The laws apply to all types of work situations, including hiring, firing, promotions, harassment, training, wages, and benefits.”
While knowing these laws will help prevent your company from getting into legal trouble, it is also important to communicate such information to your teams and especially to those in charge of hiring and promoting. Having the opportunity to hire and promote people is a serious responsibility, and those granted such a privilege need to know the legal consequences of discriminating against candidates and employees.
As you can see, the glass ceiling is a complex and critical topic. Hopefully this guide has given you a better understanding of what it is, the different types of barriers employees unfairly face and ideas for how to break down such barriers at your company.