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.

Key Takeaways

  • The term “glass ceiling” was popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article about the corporate hierarchy.
  • The glass ceiling is a metaphor for an artificial barrier preventing women from being promoted to top jobs in management.
  • In recent years the term has been broadened to include discrimination against minorites as well.

Understanding the Glass Ceiling

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 2015, the Wall Street Journal itself reported that the concept goes back to the 1970s, quoting Gay Bryant, former editor of Working Woman magazine, and the concept may have originated with two women at Hewlett-Packard.) In more recent years the analysis of the glass ceiling has expanded to include issues preventing not only women from moving up but also minorities.

Research shows that diverse groups make better decisions than homogenous ones, making shattering the glass ceiling good for a company’s bottom line.

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 percentage of women leading Fortune 500 companies in America in 2019.

History of the Glass Ceiling

The equality gap varies from country to country, and in some cases it 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 held CEO positions still earned less than men. In 2019 there were 33 female chief executive officers (CEOs) leading Fortune 500 companies—the highest number ever—but still only 6.6% of the total list.

In response to the growing concern over barriers preventing women and minorities from advancing, the U.S. Department of Labor launched the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991. It 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. It also found 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. Had Mrs. Clinton won in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession, she might have been seen as the victim of a related term, the “glass cliff.” Coined by professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, in 2004, it refers to the practice, which they documented in a study of Great Britain’s FTSE 100 companies, of promoting women to positions of power in times of crisis, when failure is a greater possibility.