What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a metaphor referring to an invisible 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 glass ceiling is a colloquial term for the social barrier preventing women from being promoted to top jobs in management.
  • The term was popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article about the corporate hierarchy.
  • In recent years, the term has been broadened to include discrimination against minorities 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 (quoting Gay Bryant, former editor of Working Woman magazine) that the concept goes back to the 1970s and 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.

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 the United States, 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.

At the end of 2020, women accounted for 55.9% of the labor force in the U.S. But when it came to chief executive positions, women held only 29.9% of these roles, and 88% of chief executives were White, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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 line.


History of the Glass Ceiling

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.

37

The number of female chief executive officers leading Fortune 500 companies in 2020—the highest number ever—but still only 7.4% of the total list.

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.

Vice President Kamala Harris shattered the second-highest glass ceiling in the U.S. when she became the first female and first Black vice president on January 20, 2021. She was also the first woman and first Black and South Asian attorney general of California as well as the first Black woman to be elected district attorney of San Francisco.

Janet Yellen became the first female Treasury secretary after being nominated by President Biden and sworn in on Jan. 26, 2021. This isn’t the first glass ceiling Yellen has broken either. She also served as the first woman to head the Federal Reserve, a role she held during President Barack Obama’s administration.

The Glass Cliff

The glass cliff is a closely related term, but refers to a phenomenon wherein women tend to be promoted to positions of power during times of crises, when failure is more likely. This could occur in fields as diverse as finance, politics, technology, and academia. While the more common glass ceiling presents a barrier to reaching the highest executive levels within their respective organizations, the glass cliff addresses the tendency to place women who have broken through that glass ceiling into precarious positions, making it likely their performance will falter, as if they are at risk of falling off a cliff.