Glass ceiling

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A chart illustrating the differences in earnings between men and women of the same educational level (USA 2006)

A glass ceiling is a term used to describe "the unseen, yet unbreakable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements."[1]

Initially, and sometimes still today, the metaphor was applied by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high achieving women.[2] In the US the concept is sometimes extended to refer to obstacles hindering the advancement of minority men, as well as women.[2]


David Cotter and colleagues defined four distinctive characteristics that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists. A glass ceiling inequality represents:

  1. "A gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee."
  2. "A gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome."
  3. "A gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels."
  4. "A gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career."

Cotter and his colleagues found that glass ceilings are correlated strongly with gender. Both white and African-American women face a glass ceiling in the course of their careers. In contrast, the researchers did not find evidence of a glass ceiling for African-American men.[3]

The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers ("glass") through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them ("ceiling").[4] These barriers prevent large numbers of women and ethnic minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.[5] Moreover, this effect may make women feel they are not worthy to fill high-ranking positions or as if their bosses do not take them seriously or see them as potential candidates for advancement.[6][7]


The concept of glass ceilings was originally introduced outside of print media at the National Press Club in July of 1979 at a Conference of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press by Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett-Packard. This was part of an ongoing discussion of a clash between written policy of promotion versus action opportunities for women at HP. The term was coined by Lawrence and HP manager Maryanne Schreiber.

The term was later used in March of 1984 by Gay Bryant. She was the former editor of Working Woman magazine and was changing jobs to be the editor of Family Circle. In an Adweek article written by Nora Frenkel, Bryant was reported as saying, "Women have reached a certain point--I call it the glass ceiling. They're in the top of middle management and they're stopping and getting stuck. There isn't enough room for all those women at the top. Some are going into business for themselves. Others are going out and raising families."[8][9][10] Also in 1984, Bryant used the term in a chapter of the book The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the 1980s. In the same book, Basia Hellwig used the term in another chapter.[9]

In a widely cited article in the Wall Street Journal in March of 1986 the term was used in the article's title: "The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs." The article was written by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt. In 1991, the US Labor Department's chief, Lynn Morley Martin, reported the results of a research project called "The Glass Ceiling Initiative" formed to investigate the low numbers of women and minorities in executive positions. This report defined the new term as "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions."[9][10]

Gender pay gap

The gender pay gap is the difference between male and female earnings. In 2008 the OECD found that the median earnings of female full-time workers were 17% lower than the earnings of their male counterparts and that "30% of the variation in gender wage gaps across OECD countries can be explained by discriminatory practices in the labour market."[11][12] The European Commission found that women's hourly earnings were 17.5% lower on average in the 27 EU Member States in 2008.[13] The female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.77 in the United States in 2009.[14] Although people argue that the gender pay gap is not relevant anymore, statistics show that it will take at least 70 years from now for the gap close. The United States ranks 65th in pay equality, and women are in the majority of most poverty stricken in America.[15]

In her article ‘Women and Politics’ Irina Zamfirache claims that the glass ceiling can be explained by woman’s place in society. Statistically the gender pay gap is decreasing over time, which seems appropriate seeing as women are no longer portrayed as housewives. However, according to Zamfirache despite the media still projecting a disadvantageous image of women, the change of stereotypes and perceptions of not only women but also minorities suggests that the glass ceiling can eventually be dissolved.[16]

Glass escalator

In addition to the glass ceiling, which already is stopping women from climbing higher in success in the workplace, a parallel phenomenon is occurring called the "glass escalator." This can be defined as how more men are joining fields that were previously occupied mainly by women, such as nursing and teaching, and within these job fields, the men are riding right past women and going straight to the top, similairily to if they were on an escalator and a woman was taking stairs. Men are being offered more promotions than women and even though women have worked just as hard, they are still not being offered the same chances as men are in some circumstances.[17] The chart from Carolyn K. Broner, Ph.D. shows an example of the glass escalator in favor of men for female-dominant occupations in schools.[18] While women have mostly occupied the position of teachers, men are taking the higher positions in school systems as deans or principals.

According to this scholarly article,[19] "men encounter powerful social pressures that direct them away from entering female-dominated occupations (Jacobs 1989, 1993)." Since female-dominated occupations are usually characterized with more feminine activities, men who enter these jobs can be perceived socially as "effeminate, homosexual, or sexual predators".[19] Research on the career paths of men who have occupations in female-dominated fields, such as nursing or teaching, come to a conclusion that men benefit financially from their gender status. This can be extended to say that men are able to abuse their gender advantages in such contexts, often "reaping the benefits of their token status to reach higher levels in female-dominated work."[20] Not only are males taking power from women in more female oriented jobs, but they are rising to the top more steadily than females.

Removing the glass ceiling

Governments, organizations, and individuals around the world have tried to encourage an increase in the number of women who reach the upper echelons of power. Many nations have made progress (Canada has set up a government program to encourage female participation on corporate boards[21]) but the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have done more than any other region in the world to address female corporate participation. The Nordic nations have generous maternity leave laws, state child care, and quotas requiring publicly listed firms to allocate 40% of corporate board seats to women. In the latest Global Gender Gap Report, the top five countries were all Nordic.[22]

The effectiveness of these changes on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder have been hugely successful. The effects on the higher rungs has been difficult to determine. Critics point out that in America, 5% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. In much more egalitarian Norway the number is only 6%. Paradoxically, the excellent maternity leave offered in the Nordic countries may be partially responsible for Denmark receiving 72nd place in terms of the gender pay gap among senior managers and officials as generous leave encourages women to take long breaks early in their careers while men continue to gain experience. This lack of experience is hurting women's salaries at the upper end of the pay scale despite every effort to close the gap.[23]

The pieces of the glass ceiling that remain in the Nordic countries can be removed using the same tools Human Resources organizations are already encouraging companies to use. Powerful women must mentor other women to encourage and prepare them for the realities of corporate life. Indeed, many women in power have already published books and other reference material to help guide the conversation and encourage mothers to balance home and office life.[24] In a survey published by a leading HR company, 25% of women indicated that leadership development programs for women were a top way to encourage female advancement. This indicates that companies must nurture a strong pool of high flying female employees who should be given plenty of challenging assignments. Twenty-eight percent of women involved in the survey also said that flexible scheduling was very important. General wisdom given by both Human Resources firms and industry publications indicates that, overall, employers should encourage fathers to share the parenting load by allowing flexible time and paternity leave and corporations should stop valuing continuity of service so highly. Both these measures will reduce the impact of parental leave and help tap into the large and well educated female workforce.[25]

The glass-ceiling index

In 2015, the Economist published the glass-ceiling index. It combines data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs.[26] Top countries where inequality is lowest include:

See also

Notes and references

  1. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Solid Investments: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, November 1995, p. 4.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, March 1995, p. iii.
  3. Cotter, David A., Joan M. Hermsen, Seth Ovadia, and Reece Vanneman (2001). The glass ceiling effect. Social Forces, Vol. 80 No. 2, pp. 655–81.
  4. *Davies-Netzley, Sally A. (1998). Women above the Glass Ceiling: Perceptions on Corporate Mobility and Strategies for Success Gender and Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, p. 340, doi:10.1177/0891243298012003006.
  5. Hesse-Biber and Carter 2005, p. 77.
  6. Nevill, Ginny, Alice Pennicott, Joanna Williams, and Ann Worrall. Women in the Workforce: The Effect of Demographic Changes in the 1990s. London: The Industrial Society, 1990, p. 39, ISBN 978-0-85290-655-2.
  7. US Department of Labor. "Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital". Office of the Secretary. Retrieved 9 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Frenkiel, Nora (March 1984). "The Up-and-Comers; Bryant Takes Aim At the Settlers-In". Adweek. Magazine World. Special Report.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Catherwood Library reference librarians (January 2005). "Question of the Month: Where did the term 'glass ceiling' originate?". Cornell University, ILR School. Retrieved June 30, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 Bollinger, Lee; O'Neill, Carole (2008). Women in Media Careers: Success Despite the Odds. University Press of America. pp. 9–10. ISBN 9780761841333.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. OECD. OECD Employment Outlook - 2008 Edition Summary in English. OECD, Paris, 2008, p. 3-4.
  12. OECD. OECD Employment Outlook. Chapter 3: The Price of Prejudice: Labour Market Discrimination on the Grounds of Gender and Ethnicity. OECD, Paris, 2008.
  13. European Commission. The situation in the EU. Retrieved on July 12, 2011.
  14. DeNavas-Walt, Carmen, Bernadette D. Proctor, and Jessica C. Smith. Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-238, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2010, p. 7, 50.
  15. "Shibboleth Authentication Request". Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Zamfirache, Irina (2010). "Women and politics – the glass ceiling". Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "A New Obstacle For Professional Women: The Glass Escalator". Forbes. Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "MEN, WOMEN, & THE GLASS ESCALATOR". Women on Business. Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Shibboleth Authentication Request" (PDF). Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Shibboleth Authentication Request". Retrieved 2015-10-23.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Women on Corporate Boards". Canada Action Plan. Government of Canada. Retrieved 10 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "The Global Gender Gap Report 2014". World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum. Retrieved 10 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Schumpeter. "A Nordic Mystery". The Economist. The Economist. Retrieved 10 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. Sandberg, Sheryl. "Why we have too few women leaders". TED. TED. Retrieved 10 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Top 5 Ways Employers can Help Women Advance". Randstad USA. Randstad USA. Retrieved 10 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Daily chart: The glass-ceiling index


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  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
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