DEFINITION of 'Glass Ceiling'

Artificial barriers that prevent women and minorities from being promoted to managerial- and executive-level positions within an organization. The glass ceiling refers to artificial barriers that prevent women from advancing beyond a certain level in the corporate hierarchy.

It is a metaphor used to describe the difficulty women face when trying to move to higher roles. The barriers are most often unwritten, meaning that a company’s personnel are more likely to be preventing women from advancing through accepted norms rather than defined corporate policies.

BREAKING DOWN 'Glass Ceiling'

The equality gap varies from country to country, and in some cases is driven by cultural stances against women participating in the workforce. In 2005, women accounted for nearly half of the workforce but less than 10% of managers in the United States. While the percentage of upper-level positions held by women was somewhat higher in Fortune 500 companies, women who were able to hold these positions still earned less than men. Less than 1% of chief executive officers (CEOs) were women in 2005.

The phrase “glass ceiling” was first popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article discussing the corporate hierarchy, and how invisible barriers seemed to be preventing women from advancing in their careers past a certain level. In more recent years, the analysis of the glass ceiling has expanded to include not only issues preventing women from advancing, but also minorities.

In response to the growing concern over barriers preventing women and minorities from advancing, the United States launched the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991. The Commission was charged with identifying the types of barriers that exist, and policies that companies had undertaken or could undertake to increase diversity in managerial and executive levels. The Commission found that qualified women and minorities were being denied the opportunity to compete for or win decision-making positions, and that the perceptions of both employees and employers often included stereotypes that held women and minorities in a negative light.

Companies have responded to the equality gap by focusing on measures to increase diversity. This has included hiring personnel specifically tasked with ensuring that women and minorities see improved representation in management-level positions. By focusing on policies that reduce or eliminate the glass ceiling, companies are able to ensure that the most qualified candidates hold decision-making positions.

Additionally, research has shown that diverse groups are more successful in making decisions than homogenous ones, which has the effect of signaling to companies that eliminating the glass ceiling can positively affect their bottom lines.

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