Glass ceiling

This article is about a metaphor. For more information about the barrier that prevents women from reaching the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, see Gender pay gap.
A chart illustrating the differences in earnings between men and women of the same educational level (USA 2006)

A glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that keeps a given demographic (typically applied to women) from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy.[1]

The metaphor was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women.[2][3] In the US, the concept is sometimes extended to refer to obstacles hindering the advancement of minority women, as well as minority men.[2][4] Minority women often find the most difficulty in "breaking the glass ceiling" because they lie at the intersection of two traditionally oppressed groups: women and people of color.[5] Asian and Asian American news outlets have coined the term "bamboo ceiling" to refer to the obstacles that all Asian Americans face in advancing their careers.[6][7]

Within the same concepts of the other terms surrounding the workplace, there are similar terms for restrictions and barriers concerning women and their roles within organizations and how they coincide with their maternal duties. These "Invisible Barriers" function as a metaphors to describe the extra circumstances that women undergo, usually when trying to advance within areas of their careers and at often times while trying to advance within their lives outside of their work spaces.[8]


The United States Federal Glass Ceiling Commission[9] defines the glass ceiling as "the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements."[1]

David Cotter and colleagues defined four distinctive characteristics that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists. A glass ceiling inequality represents:

  1. "A gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee."
  2. "A gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome."
  3. "A gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels."
  4. "A gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career."

Cotter and his colleagues found that glass ceilings are correlated strongly with gender. Both white and minority women face a glass ceiling in the course of their careers. In contrast, the researchers did not find evidence of a glass ceiling for African-American men.[10]

The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers ("glass") through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them ("ceiling").[11] These barriers prevent large numbers of women and ethnic minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.[12] Moreover, this effect prevents women from filling high-ranking positions and puts them at a disadvantage as potential candidates for advancement.[13][14]


The concept of the glass ceiling was originally introduced outside of print media at the National Press Club in July 1979. This was at a Conference of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press led by Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett-Packard. This was part of an ongoing discussion of a clash between written policy of promotion versus action opportunities for women at HP. The term was coined by Lawrence and HP manager Maryanne Schreiber.

The term was later used in March 1984 by Gay Bryant. She was the former editor of Working Woman magazine and was changing jobs to be the editor of Family Circle. In an Adweek article written by Nora Frenkel, Bryant was reported as saying, "Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They're in the top of middle management and they're stopping and getting stuck. There isn't enough room for all those women at the top. Some are going into business for themselves. Others are going out and raising families."[15][16][17] Also in 1984, Bryant used the term in a chapter of the book The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the 1980s. In the same book, Basia Hellwig used the term in another chapter.[16]

In a widely cited article in the Wall Street Journal in March 1986 the term was used in the article's title: "The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs". The article was written by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt. Hymowitz and Schellhardt introduced glass ceiling was "not something that could be found in any corporate manual or even discussed at a business meeting; it was originally introduced as an invisible, covert, and unspoken phenomenon that existed to keep executive level leadership positions in the hands of Caucasian males."[18]

As the term "Glass Ceiling" got more issued within society, public responded with differing ideas and opinions. Some argued that glass ceiling is a myth rather than a reality because women chose to stay home and showed less dedication to advance into executive suite.[18] As a result of continuing public debate, the US Labor Department's chief, Lynn Morley Martin, reported the results of a research project called "The Glass Ceiling Initiative" formed to investigate the low numbers of women and minorities in executive positions. This report defined the new term as "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions."[16][17]

In 1991, as a part of Title II of the Civil Right Act of 1991,[19] Congress created the Glass Ceiling Commission. This 21 member Presidential Commission was chaired by Secretary of Labor Robert Reich,[19] and was created to study the "barriers to the advancement of minorities and women within corporate hierarchies (the problem known as the glass ceiling), to issue a report on its findings and conclusions, and to make recommendations on ways to dis- mantle the glass ceiling."[1] The commission conducted extensive research including, surveys, public hearings and interviews, and released their findings in a report in 1995.[2] The report, "Good for Business", offered "tangible guidelines and solutions on how these barriers can be overcome and eliminated".[1] The goal of the commission was to provide recommendations on how to shatter the glass ceiling, specifically in the world of business. The report issued 12 recommendations on how to improve the workplace by increasing diversity in the organization and reducing discrimination through policy[1][20][21]

Number of women CEOs from the Fortune Lists has been increasing from 2012–2014,[22] but ironically women's labor force participation rate decreased from 52.4% to 49.6% between 1995 and 2015 globally. However, it is evident that some countries like Australia has increased the labor force participation of women over 27% since 1978. Furthermore, only 19.2% of S&P 500 Board Seats were held by women in 2014, of whom 80.2% were considered white.[23]

Gender pay gap

The gender pay gap is the difference between male and female earnings. In 2008 the OECD found that the median earnings of female full-time workers were 17% lower than the earnings of their male counterparts and that "30% of the variation in gender wage gaps across OECD countries can be explained by discriminatory practices in the labour market."[24][25] The European Commission found that women's hourly earnings were 17.5% lower on average in the 27 EU Member States in 2008.[26] As of April 2016 the wage gap in the United States was "79 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual gender wage gap $10,762".[27]

The wage gap is even larger for women of color.[28] African American women are paid 60 cents to every dollar a white man makes while Latina women are paid only 55 cents. "Two Asian women are paid 84 cents for every dollar paid to white" men.[27]

Although people argue that the gender pay gap is not relevant anymore, statistics show that it will take at least 70 years from now for the gap to close. Scholars have predicted that, at the current rate of increase of women's wages, the gender pay gap would not close until 2056.[29] According to the United States International Labor Rights Forum, every single country in the world suffers from gender pay gaps by margins of up to 40 percent.[30] The United States ranks 65th in pay equality, and women are in the majority of most poverty stricken in America.

In her article "Women and Politics", Irina Zamfirache claims that the glass ceiling can be explained by woman's place in society. Statistically the gender pay gap is decreasing over time, which seems appropriate seeing as women are no longer portrayed as housewives. However, according to Zamfirache despite the media still projecting a disadvantageous image of women, the change of stereotypes and perceptions of not only women but also minorities suggests that the glass ceiling can eventually be dissolved.[31]

Glass escalator

In addition to the glass ceiling, which already is stopping women from climbing higher in success in the workplace, a parallel phenomenon called the "glass escalator" is occurring. This can be defined as how more men are joining fields that were previously occupied mainly by women, such as nursing and teaching, and within these job fields, the men are riding right past women and going straight to the top, similarly to if they were on an escalator and a woman was taking stairs. Men are being offered more promotions than women and even though women have worked just as hard, they are still not being offered the same chances as men are in some circumstances.[32] The chart from Carolyn K. Broner, Ph.D. shows an example of the glass escalator in favor of men for female-dominant occupations in schools.[33] While women have mostly occupied the position of teachers, men are taking the higher positions in school systems as deans or principals.

According to this scholarly article,[34] "men encounter powerful social pressures that direct them away from entering female-dominated occupations (Jacobs 1989, 1993)." Since female-dominated occupations are usually characterized with more feminine activities, men who enter these jobs can be perceived socially as "effeminate, homosexual, or sexual predators".[34] Research on the career paths of men who have occupations in female-dominated fields, such as nursing or teaching, come to a conclusion that men benefit financially from their gender status. This can be extended to say that men are able to abuse their gender advantages in such contexts, often "reaping the benefits of their token status to reach higher levels in female-dominated work." Not only are males taking power from women in more female oriented jobs, but they are rising to the top more steadily than females.

Sticky floor

In the literature on gender discrimination, the concept of "sticky floors" complements the concept of a glass ceiling. Sticky floors can be described as the pattern that women are, compared to men, less likely to start to climb the job ladder. Thereby, this phenomenon is related to gender differentials at the bottom of the wage distribution. Building on the seminal study by Booth and co-authors in European Economic Review,[35] during the last decade economists have attempted to identify sticky floors in the labour market. They found empirical evidence for the existence of sticky floors in countries such as Australia, Belgium, Italy, Thailand and the United States.[36]

The frozen middle

Similar to the sticky floor, the frozen middle describes the phenomenon of women's progress up the corporate ladder slowing, if not halting, in the ranks of middle management.[37] Originally the term referred to the resistance corporate upper management faced from middle management when issuing directives. Due to a lack of ability or lack of drive in the ranks of middle management these directives do not come into fruition and as a result the company's bottom line suffers.The term was popularized by a Harvard Business Review article titled Middle Management Excellence.[38] Due to the growing proportion of women to men in the workforce, however, the term "frozen middle" has become more commonly ascribed to the aforementioned slowing of the careers of women in middle management.[39] The 1996 study "A Study of the Career Development and Aspirations of Women in Middle Management" posits that social structures and networks within businesses that favor "good old boys" and norms of masculinity exist based on the experiences of women surveyed.[40] According to the study, women who did not exhibit stereotypical masculine traits, (e.g. aggressiveness, thick skin, lack of emotional expression) and interpersonal communication tendencies are at an inherent disadvantage compared to their male peers.[41] As the ratio of men to women increases in the upper levels of management,[42] women's access to female mentors who could advise them on ways to navigate office politics is limited, further inhibiting upward mobility within a corporation or firm.[43] Furthermore, the frozen middle affects female professionals in western and eastern countries such as the United States and Malaysia, respectively,[44] as well as women in a variety of fields ranging from the aforementioned corporations to STEM fields.[45]

Glass Ceiling Index

In 2016, the Economist updated their glass-ceiling index. It combines data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs.[46] The countries where inequality was lowest were, in order of most equality, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Hungary, which three of the five are the same as 2015 however Iceland and Hungary were not on the top 5 list before. Iceland had the lowest difference with women earning a score of 82.6 out of 100 as to what men make.

Second shift

The second shift focuses on the idea that women theoretically work a second shift in the manner of having a greater workload, not just doing a greater share of domestic work. All of the task that are engaged in outside of the workplace are mainly tied to motherhood. Depending on location, household income, educational attainment, ethnicity and location. Data shows that women do work a second shift in the sense of having a greater workload, not just doing a greater share of domestic work, but this is not apparent if simultaneous activity is overlooked.[47] Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein as early as 1956 focused on the potential of both men and women working in settings that included paid and unpaid types of work environments. Research indicated that men and women could have equal time for activities outside the work environment for family and extra activities.[48] This "second shift" has also been found to have physical effects as well, especially for women. Women whom engage in longer hours in pursuit of family balance, often suffer more mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and other problems. Irritability, low motivation and energy, and other emotional issues have been found as well. The overall happiness of women can be improved if the balance of career and home responsibilities are met.[49]

Mommy Track

"Mommy Track" is a term used to describe women who simply disregard their career and professional duties in order to satisfy the needs of their families. Women are often subject to long work hours that creates an imbalance within the work-family schedule.[50] There is research suggesting that women were able to function on a part-time professional schedule compared to others who worked full time while still engaged in external family activities. The research also suggest flexible work arrangement allow for the achievement of a healthy work and family balance. A difference has also been discovered in the cost and amount of effort in childbearing amongst women in higher skilled positions and roles, as apposed to women in lower skilled jobs. This difference leading to a cause of women delaying and postponing goals and career aspiration over a number of years.[51] A large number of women across the country who have vocational/professional certifications and degrees, have been found to be not apart of the working force at the estimated rate more than twice times as male counterparts. Also, the Deloitte Touche, a professional hiring service firm. confirmed that they had recorded dropout rates in each entering class of hires and reported that indeed women rates were very high compared to males due to mother and family related responsibilities.[52]

Concrete floor

The minimum number or the proportion of women necessary for a cabinet or board of directors to be perceived as legitimate.[53]

See also


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  2. 1 2 3 Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, March 1995.
  3. Wiley, John (2012). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies. Vol. 5. John Wiley and Sons.
  4., The Washington Times. "Hillary Clinton: 'As a white person,' I have to discuss racism 'every chance I get'".
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  51. Stone, Pamela; Lovejoyy, Meg (2004). "Fast-Track Women & The Choice To Stay Home". The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 596 (62).
  52. "There are three rules of Cabinet appointments". Wall Street Journal. November 25, 2016.


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