Glass Ceiling 101

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine
July 13, 2024 at 12:1PM UTC

You’ve probably heard about the metaphorical glass ceiling that prevents minorities from rising above a certain level in their careers and beyond. Throughout history, women and other minorities have faced obstacles and challenges many others do not in their careers, personal lives, and other spheres.

So, what does the phrase glass ceiling mean? How has the concept evolved historically—and what does the future hold for women and other minorities in terms of breaking boundaries in hierarchies? Read on to learn all about the glass ceiling and what it means for women.

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

Originally used to describe women being unable to break through a certain threshold when attempting to advance in their careers, the glass ceiling is now applied to other minorities facing obstacles that prevent them from achieving high-level leadership and executive positions in the working world.

These barriers often occur because of workplace prejudices and discrimination. Marginalized groups, such as women and people of color, may have difficulty overcoming inherent sexism—and often unintentional prejudices—embedded in a company’s culture or the entire industry.

The phrase is often used across occupations and industries. For example, people often refer to the fact that the United States has yet to have a female president as the presidential glass ceiling.

What Does Glass Ceiling Effect Mean?

The glass ceiling effect refers to the resistance other, often majority groups put forth against minorities in terms of achieving upper-level positions in their occupations and industries. This resistance makes it difficult and in some cases impossible for often highly-qualified individuals to achieve top-level positions.

What is the Glass Elevator?

The glass elevator, also known as the glass escalator, refers to men entering and climbing the ranks of female-dominated industries, such as teaching and nursing. According to The New York Times, as men—in particular, white men—enter these occupations, they are earning more and climbing up the ranks more quickly than their female counterparts, often achieving higher-level positions than more qualified women.

What Is the Glass Cliff Effect?

Originally described by the University of Exeter’s Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, the glass cliff effect refers to a phenomenon of women being appointed to leadership positions during periods of economic decline and poor company performance.

Because these periods tend to be challenging hurdles for organizations, and the positions themselves carry a high risk of failure, these female leaders are blamed if they cannot bring the company out of its difficult circumstances—and are pushed off of a metaphorical “glass cliff.”

History of the “Glass Ceiling” Phrase

Marilyn Loden, then a 31-year-old manager at New York Telephone Co., first used the phrase when speaking on a panel entitled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” at the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York. The conversation was meant to focus on how women responsible for their inability to advance in the workplace, but Loden had a different take. She spoke of a seemingly invisible barrier that prevented women from moving beyond a certain threshold, calling it “the glass ceiling.”

Separately, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, then employees of Hewlett-Packard, used the term in a 1979 Conference of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, describing the glass ceiling as a pattern of preventing qualified women from receiving the same promotions as men.

In 1984, Gay Bryant, who was transitioning into a new role as editor of Family Circle after serving as editor of Working Woman, told Adweek, "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."

In the March 1986 Wall Street Journal article, "The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs,” Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt described the phenomenon as a means of keeping positions of power confined to white men. This article popularized the term.

The U.S. Labor Department’s chief, Lynn Morley Martin, facilitated a research project on the phenomenon and published the findings in the 1991 report, “The Glass Ceiling Initiative,” which lent credence to the idea that “artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias” prevented qualified women and other minorities from attaining management and leadership positions.

In 1991, the Presidential Glass Ceiling Commission, an initiative of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, was convened to research and make recommendations on how to ensure that women and minorities received equal opportunities for advancement and their white male counterparts.

The Commission published its findings in 1995, issuing 12 recommendations in the report, “A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital.” Among the recommendations, the Commission advocated that organizations “use affirmative action as a tool,” “educate the corporate ranks,” and “initiate work/life and family-friendly policies.”

What to Do About It

While breaking the glass ceiling may seem like an insurmountable challenge, there are steps organizations can take to ensure that women and other minorities are being appropriately represented in their top ranks.

1. Educate management and employees on gender bias.

Without awareness, there’s little impetus for change. Employees need to be educated on unconscious bias—an implicit belief that the perpetrator may not know they have—and conscious bias, an overt belief in a group’s superiority. While bias training has been shown to have mixed results, holding workshops and events to promote inclusivity can help employees understand why their attitudes and behaviors matter in the workplace and beyond.

2. Establish an equal opportunity policy.

Having an explicit policy regarding inclusivity and diversity will not only help ensure equal representation, but it can also help your company grow and thrive. After all, different perspectives and backgrounds contribute to the success of an organization.

This concept can help ensure that minorities have the same access to opportunities as others do. Make it clear to your employees that these measures have benefits for everyone, not just minorities.

3. Engage managers in solutions.

It’s impossible to force people to forget their biases, of course. In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Diversity Programs Fail,” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev reveal that their research suggests that “forcing equality” through initiatives like diversity training has more negative than positive effects on diversity at companies.

Instead, Dobbin and Kalev found that involving managers in solving the problem and promoting social accountability has a more positive effect. Specifically, they advocate interventions such as targeted college recruitment, mentoring programs, self-managed teams, and task forces, all of which show evidence of being more effective than initiatives that are created to specifically target diversity.

The Glass Ceiling in the United States vs. the Rest of the World

According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, the U.S. ranks first in terms of women’s educational attainment. However, it ranks 26th in women’s economic participation and 73rd in political empowerment.

In Politics

Europe has had the most representation in terms of women leading national governments, with Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Theresa May, and many others holding the highest political offices in their countries. San Marino is the country with the most female heads of state to date at 16.

Data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union shows that the U.S. ranks 102nd in terms of world parliamentary participation, or congressional participation in U.S. terms, as of June 2018.

In Business

While the U.S. lags behind many other countries in terms of female leadership in politics, that’s not necessarily the case for other industries. In The New York Times, Catherine Rampell writes that while the U.S. has less family-friendly labor policies compared with, say, European Union countries, where parents must be able to request part-time, flexible, or telecommuting options without penalties from their employers, women who do work in the U.S. have “more varied and ambitious career paths” available to them.

Rampell explained further that research from Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn shows that American women who do work are just as likely as men to become managers or members of traditionally male-dominated fields. There are still fewer women than men in these positions, but this is due to the fact that there are fewer women than men in the workforce.

The gap between women and men in senior leadership positions is smaller in the U.S. than it is in 10 other developed countries, with New Zealand having the next-smallest gap, according to the data from 2013.

The Glass Ceiling in the Future

It’s obvious that women and minorities have a long way to go in terms of achieving the same opportunities as white men in the workplace and beyond.

Many factors do need to be addressed. For example, the confidence gap, the self-doubt many women experience, believing they are not as competent as they actually are, is a very real phenomenon that can hold women back in the workplace. This lack of confidence can prevent women from asking for what they want and deserve—namely, promotions and greater pay. (Check out these 20 Ways to Curb the Confidence Gap That’s Crippling Women’s Careers for tips on boosting your own professional confidence.)

Furthermore, while the gender pay gap has narrowed over the years—women made 82 cents per every dollar men made in 2017, according to Pew Research Center—it has also remained relatively stagnant over the past 10 years.

While this may seem discouraging to women hope to climb to the top ranks of their fields, it is important to keep in mind the many achievements and advances women have made both recently and over the years. Many women have made significant strides in shattering the glass ceilings of their industries. Some of these prominent names include:

• Jeanette Rankin, the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress

• Katherine Graham, the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company (The Washington Post)

• Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice

• Sally Ride, the first woman to go to space

• Oprah Winfrey, the first woman to own and produce a syndicated talk show

• Carla Hayden, the first woman and first African American to be Librarian of Congress

• Katherine Bigelow, the first female Oscar-winning director

• Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for president by a major U.S. party

These women—and many, many others—make it clear that attaining equality once and for all is within reach. Furthermore, according to 2015 data from Pew Research Center, the majority of public opinion sees women and men as equally qualified when it comes to key leadership traits including ambition, honesty, intelligence, motivation, and decisiveness.

That means that while women do face obstacles that men don’t when it comes to attaining leadership positions—and may need to put forth extra hard work, perseverance, and self-confidence—it can and should be done—and that shattering the glass ceiling once and for all is an attainable goal.

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