What is the Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling is a metaphor referring to an artificial barrier that prevents women and minorities from being promoted to managerial- and executive-level positions within an organization. The phrase glass ceiling is used to describe the difficulties faced by women when trying to move to higher roles in a male-dominated hierarchy. The barriers are most often unwritten, meaning that women are more likely to be restricted from advancing through accepted norms and implicit biases, rather than defined corporate policies.


The glass ceiling concept 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.

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 can ensure that the most qualified candidates hold decision-making positions.

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

The Glass Ceiling in the United States

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 percent 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. In 2017, there were 24 female chief executive officers (CEOs) leading Fortune 500 companies, which is less than 5 percent of the total list.

In response to the growing concern over barriers preventing women and minorities from advancing, the United States Department of Labor 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.

When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008 and 2016, she repeatedly spoke of her goal of shattering the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” by becoming America’s first female president.