The Glass Ceiling: Definition, History, Effects, and Examples

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The term glass ceiling refers to a metaphorical invisible barrier that prevents certain individuals from being promoted to managerial- and executive-level positions within an organization or industry. The phrase is commonly used to describe the difficulties faced by women and minorities when trying to move to higher roles in a male-dominated corporate hierarchy. The barriers are most often unwritten, meaning that these individuals 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 has been broadened to include discrimination against minorities.
  • Marilyn Loden coined the phrase "glass ceiling" at a 1978 Women's Exposition.
  • Women make up 56.8% of the labor force in the U.S but hold only 29.1% of executive positions.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor launched the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991 to address the glass ceiling.

Understanding the Glass Ceiling

Marilyn Loden first coined the phrase "glass ceiling" while speaking as a panelist at the 1978 Women's Exposition in New York. As a fill-in for her employer's only female executive, Loden was invited to discuss how women were to blame for the barriers preventing them from advancing in their careers. Instead, she spoke about deeper, ignored issues that historically kept women from occupying positions of authority: the glass ceiling.

This concept was later popularized in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article discussing the corporate hierarchy and how invisible barriers seemed to prevent women from advancing in their careers past a certain level. In 2015, the publication 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. The concept expanded in more contemporary times to include minorities in addition to women.

The equality gap varies between countries and may be driven by cultural stances against women and minority groups from participating in the workforce. Companies in the United States have responded to the equality gap by focusing on measures to increase diversity. This includes 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.

In 2021, women accounted for 56.8% of the labor force in the U.S. But when it came to chief executive positions, women held only 29.1% of these roles, and 85.7% of chief executives identified as white, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Research shows 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

The U.S. Department of Labor launched the Glass Ceiling Commission in 1991 in response to the growing concern over barriers preventing women and minorities from advancing. It was charged with identifying the barriers that exist and policies that companies adopted or could undertake to increase diversity at 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. Vice President Kamala Harris shattered the second-highest glass ceiling in the U.S. when she became the first female and first Black and South Asian Vice President on Jan. 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.


The number of female chief executive officers leading Fortune 500 companies in 2021—the highest number ever—but still only 8.1% of the total list.

The Glass Ceiling vs. 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 it into precarious positions, making it likely their performance will falter, as if they are at risk of falling off a cliff.

Had Hillary Clinton won the presidential election in 2008, which was the height of the Great Recession, she might have been seen as the victim of the glass cliff. The term was coined by professors Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, in 2004. Ryan and Haslam documented this phenomenon extensively in a study of Great Britain’s FTSE 100 companies.

Example of the Glass Ceiling

There are numerous examples of instances where individuals encountered and have been able to shatter the glass ceiling. As noted above, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to secure the Democratic nomination when she ran for president during the 2016 election.

As noted above, Kamala Harris shattered the glass ceiling when she became the first woman to be elected as U.S. Vice President under President Joe Biden. She is also the first Black and South Asian person to be elected to the position as well. Harris was officially sworn in as Vice President on Jan. 20, 2021.

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.

What Does the Phrase Glass Ceiling Mean?

The glass ceiling is a metaphor that refers to the barrier that marginalized people, such as women and minorities, encounter when seeking career advancements.

What Is an Example of the Glass Ceiling?

There are many examples where individuals have broken the glass ceiling. Kamala Harris shattered a glass ceiling when she became the first woman Vice President of the United States. She is also the first Black person and the first person of South Asian descent to be elected to the role of Vice President.

From the first U.S. presidential election in 1789 until the early 21st-century, no Black person served as president. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all Black people could vote. However, in 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States.

What Does It Mean to Break the Glass Ceiling?

Breaking the glass ceiling means overcoming the barriers set to prevent access to advancement. Breaking the glass ceiling also includes removing barriers for others experiencing the same struggles.

Where Did the Saying "Break the Glass Ceiling" Come From?

The term glass ceiling was coined by Marilyn Loden, a New York telephone company manager, during a 1978 Women's Exposition.

Does the Glass Ceiling Still Exist?

The glass ceiling still exists across various industries for different groups of people. Men still occupy most of the executive positions in corporations and other positions of power. Although there is more attention given to these barriers, they are still very much present in the workforce.

Article Sources
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  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.”

  3. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Labor Force Participation Rate–Women."

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. "The U.S. Department of Labor Timeline - Alternate Version: Then and Now, Glass Ceiling Commission Created by Civil Rights Act of 1991."

  5. The Wall Street Journal. “The Phrase ‘Glass Ceiling’ Stretches Back Decades.”

  6. NeuroLeadership Institute. "Why Diverse Teams Outperform Homogeneous Teams."

  7. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. "Glass Ceilings: The Status of Women as Officials and Managers in the Private Sector."

  8. Fortune. “The Female CEOs on This Year’s Fortune 500 Just Broke Three All-Time Records.”

  9. Ryan, Michelle and Alexander Haslam. "The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions." British Journal of Management, vol. 16., no.2., June 2005, pp. 81-90.

  10. U.S. Department of the Treasury. "Janet Yellen."

  11. National Archives. "Voting Rights Act (1965)."

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