In economics, the term glass ceiling refers to situations where the advancement of a qualified person within the hierarchy of an organization is stopped at a lower level because of some form of discrimination, most commonly sexism or racism. However, since the term was coined, "glass ceiling" has also come to describe the limited advancement of the deaf, blind, disabled, and aged.
This situation is referred to as a "ceiling" as there is a limitation blocking upward advancement, and "glass" (transparent) because the limitation is not immediately apparent and is normally an unwritten and unofficial policy. This invisible barrier continues to exist, even though there are no explicit obstacles keeping minorities from acquiring advanced job positions – there are no advertisements that specifically say “no minorities hired at this establishment”, nor are there any formal orders that say “minorities are not qualified” (largely due to the fact that equal employment opportunity laws forbid this kind of discrimination, and open admittance of it is career suicide) – but they do lie beneath the surface. When a company exercises said discrimination, they will usually attempt to use an indirect justification, such as "You are making unpredictable, involuntary movements or sounds that upset the customers," as opposed to directly saying, "You have Tourette syndrome." The "glass ceiling" is distinguished from formal barriers to advancement, such as education or experience requirements. Mainly this invisible barrier seems to exist in more of the developing countries, in whose businesses this effect is highly "visible".
However, this glass ceiling tends to affect working women the most. It's the barrier that prevents large numbers of women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce. This barrier makes many women feel as they are not worthy enough to have these high-ranking positions, but also they feel as if their bosses do not take them seriously or actually see them as potential candidates.
The term "glass ceiling" has been thought to have first been used to refer to invisible barriers that impede the career advancement of women in the American workforce in an article by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt in the March 24, 1986 edition of the Wall Street Journal. However, the term was used prior to that; for instance, it was utilized in a March 1984 Adweek article by Gay Bryant. The term glass ceiling was used prior to the 1984 article by two women at Hewlett-Packard in 1979, Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber, to describe how while on the surface there seemed to be a clear path of promotion, in actuality women seemed to hit a point which they seemed unable to progress beyond. Upon becoming CEO and chairwoman of the board of HP, Carly Fiorina proclaimed that there was no glass ceiling. After her term at HP, she called her earlier statement a "[d]umb thing to say."
However, the term was used by the U.S. Department of Labor in 1991 in response to a study of nine Fortune 500 companies. The study confirmed that women and minorities encountered considerable glass ceiling barriers in their careers; these barriers were experienced earlier in their professions than previously thought.
Senator Hillary Clinton used the term glass ceiling in her concession speech as she withdrew from the 2008 Democratic primary: "And although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it."
Types of glass ceiling barriers
- Different pay for comparable work.
- Sexual, ethnic, racial, religious discrimination or harassment in the workplace
- Lack of family-friendly workplace policies (or, on the flipside, policies that discriminate against gay people, non-parents, or single parents)
- Exclusion from informal networks; Stereotyping and preconceptions of women's roles and abilities; Failure of senior leadership to assume accountability for women's advancement; Lack of role models; Lack of mentoring 
- Requiring long hours for advancement, sometimes called the hour-glass ceiling.
Sexism and glass ceiling effects - The gender wage gap
This gap is the difference in both the wages and earnings between males and females who have equivalent job titles, training experience, education, and professions. A comparison frequently cited is that women make 75.3 cents on the dollar to men, which is derived from statistics maintained by the United States Census Bureau from 2003, relating specifically to an across-the-board comparison of year-round full-time workers.
David R. Hekman and colleagues (2009) found that customers prefer white male employees, which is why such workers may continue to earn 25 percent more than equally-well performing women and minorities. Hekman et al. (2009) found that customers who viewed videos featuring a black male, a white female, or a white male actor playing the role of an employee helping a customer were 19% more satisfied with the white male employee's performance and also were more satisfied with the store's cleanliness and appearance. This despite that all three actors performed identically, read the same script, and were in exactly the same location with identical camera angles and lighting. Moreover, 45 percent of the customers were women and 41 percent were non-white, indicating that even women and minority customers prefer white men. In a second study, they found that white male doctors were rated as more approachable and competent than equally-well performing women or minority doctors. They interpret their findings to suggest that employers are willing to pay more for white male employees because employers are customer driven and customers are happier with white male employees. They also suggest that what is required to solve the problem of wage inequality isn't necessarily paying women more but changing customer biases. This paper has been featured in many media outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post,The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio.
A customer preference for white men may also help explain why white men hold the highest paying, most prestigious, and most powerful jobs in the occupational structure. This is referred to as occupational segregation. Men tend to be highly concentrated in the top professions, such as supervisors, managers, executives, and production operators. On the other hand, women tend to be over-represented in the lowest-ranking and lowest paid professions in the workforce, such as secretaries, sales associates, teachers, nurses, and child care providers. As a result, occupations become “sex typed” as either being specifically male or female jobs. The stereotypically male-characterized occupations, in which at least 60-75% of the workers are males, are more highly paid than occupations in which 60-75% of the jobholders are women. This segregation of women into less-prestigious and lower-ranked jobs also decreases a woman’s chance of being promoted, as well as the chance of having any type of power over others. Moreover, occupational segregation reduces women’s access to insurance, benefits, and pensions.
Males not only have superior statuses than women between jobs, but also within the jobs themselves. Women are concentrated into the lower-ranked and lower-paid occupations within a given profession. If women are in management positions, they are more likely to be in personnel than in marketing professions; the averages salaries of each are $48,048 and $56,940 per year, respectively. Another example occurs within the medical field. Female doctors are much more likely to be heavily constricted in the family practice or pediatric specialties, which average about $130,000 and $126,000 per year, respectively. However, men are more likely to become surgeons and highly specialized medical practitioners, who tend to average $240,000 or more per year.
This gender wage gap is present within all realms of the workforce – blue collar, managerial, and professional occupations. Only 16% of the top executive positions in America’s largest corporations and enterprises are held by women. Additionally, the median weekly income of full-time working women is only 70.5% of full-time working men. This statistic tends to hold true across all fields of work. This gender imbalance in occupations occurs to some degree because women are more likely than men to be newcomers in many fields; therefore, they lack the primacy and the increased pay that comes with seniority.
Gender Inequality is often embedded within the social hierarchy and this affects how women and men are perceived in leadership roles. Different traits are ascribed to females when compared to males that often color the selection process with unfounded bias. If a female does have other traits aside from the gendered traits that she is believed to possess, then she is viewed negatively. For example, in a study conducted by Thomas-Hunt and Phillips (2004) they found that when women possessed expertise they were actually viewed as less influential by others. However, expertise was positive for males. Also, female led groups were less productive than male led groups even though the women held expertise in the area just like males. Therefore, possessing expertise is not viewed as positively as it is for males. This also suggests that lack of skills is not the only reason why women are not deemed worthy of leadership roles. As cited by Lyness and Thompson in 1997, one consequence of sex stereotypes is that women's achievements tend to be devalued or attributed to luck or effort rather than ability or skill, and therefore this stereotype has the potential to reduce the organizational awards that they receive.
Lyness and Heilman (2006) found that in a study conducted with 448 upper-level employees that women were less likely to be promoted than males, and if they were promoted they had stronger performance ratings than males. However, performance ratings were more strongly connected to promotions for women than men. This suggests that women had to be highly impressive to be considered eligible for leadership roles, whereas this was not the case for men. In a number of longitudinal studies (Cox & Harquail, 1991; Olson, Frieze, & Good, 1987; Strober, 1982; Wallace, 1989; Wood, Corcoran, & Courant, 1993), that track comparably qualified men and women, such as graduates of the same MBA program or law school, it has been shown that over time there is degradation of the women's compensation that cannot fully be explained by differences in qualifications, work history, experience, or career interruptions.
Women are more likely to choose jobs based on factors other than pay, for instance: health care and scheduling that can be managed with the duties of primary care of children for which women are still overwhelmingly responsible, and thus they may be less likely to take jobs that require travel or relocation or jobs that are hazardous. On average, women take more time off and work fewer hours, often due to the unequal distribution of childcare labor, domestic labor, medical needs specific to women, and other family issues that tend to fall to a woman's responsibility per the gender roles assigned by society. The ending result of women’s extensive obligation to attend to responsibilities of the home and children is that their wages plummet. Family demands have a downward pull on women’s earnings as they proceed throughout their life course. The earnings gap tends to widen considerably when men and women are in their early to mid-thirties; the gap reaches the widest point when men and women are in their fifties.
Another perspective on the gender wage gap comes from a 2008 research study by Judge and Livingston. They investigated the relationship(s) between gender, gender role orientation, and labor marker earnings. The study did not specifically look at the gender wage gap, but focused more on the impact that the interaction between gender role orientation (people’s beliefs about what occupations are considered suitable and appropriate for males and females) and gender has on earnings. The researchers suggested that the gender wage gap cannot fully be explained through economic factors, offering that underlying psychological components and attitudes account for some of the difference. They found that while traditional gender roles were positively connected to earnings, that gender significantly predicted the amount and direction of this relationship. For instance, traditional gender role orientation was positively related with earnings for males, providing them with strong earnings. Meanwhile, traditional gender role orientation was slightly negatively associated with earnings for females, providing them weaker earnings. This suggests that men who have traditional male-female attitudes about working are rewarded in the workplace for seeking to maintain the social order, while women were neither rewarded nor punished. In general, the study indicated that even though gender role beliefs are beginning to become less traditional for men and women, traditional gender role orientation continues to intensify the gender wage gap.
The glass ceiling and disclosure of sexual orientation
In order to excel in the workplace it is important that people are familiar with a worker's strong attributes. This may present obstacles for the LGBT community because their sexual orientation may be a large factor that plays in to how they identify themselves. In a study done by Ragins in 2004, disclosure of sexual orientation has been found to have some positive, some negative, and nonsignificant effects on work attitudes, psychological strain, and compensation. Ragins, Singh and Cornwell in 2007, found that in some cases disclosure of sexual orientation has been found to result in reports of verbal harassment, job termination, and even physical assault. (D'Augelli & Grossman, 2001; Friskopp & Silverstein, 1996). In their study, Ragins, Singh and Cornwell examined fear of disclosure only among LGBT employees who had not disclosed, or had not fully disclosed their sexual identity at work. Promotion rate and compensation were used to measure career outcomes. Promotions were defined as involving two or more of the following criteria that may occur within or between organizations: significant increases in salary; significant increases in scope of responsibility; changes in job level or rank; or becoming eligible for bonuses, incentives, and stock plans. Given this definition, respondents were asked how many promotions they had received over the past 10 years. Respondents also reported their current annual compensation, which included salary, bonuses, commissions, stock options, and profit sharing. The findings showed that those who feared more negative consequences to disclosure reported less job satisfaction, organizational commitment, satisfaction with opportunities for promotion, career commitment, and organization-based self-esteem and greater turnover intentions than those who feared less negative consequences.
Women Surpassing the Glass Ceiling
Although there is a glass ceiling, many women recently have surpassed that hurdle. When at the top management, many women feel like outsiders. Most of the time they are the only female at that level and are surrounded by males. Many women have faced sexual harassment, wage inequality, blocked movement and gender stereotyped roles. Women are said to have different styles of leadership and management once they break the barrier. They are generalized to be more nurturing and caring in nature than men. Men are stereotypically, more “tough” and shrewd in business, which are sometimes seen as positive traits. Women’s traditional role is in the home, taking care of children, and keeping house. The stereotype of maternal leadership stems from that. Some men in senior management that do not want to see women climb the corporate ladder believe that they do not have the qualities to lead a company. Many believe that making assumptions about the way women act in a leadership position perpetuates the stereotypes that cause the glass ceiling.
There are many reasons why women have been able to break the barrier. Some believe that having women on an executive board is a positive thing. Women make 60% of all purchases in the United States, it is common sense to want their opinion. The more women that are accepted into management positions, the more will get promoted to senior management and serve as role models for the younger. Younger men have also been more accepting of female superiors. The perception of a woman’s role is changing with the younger generation. However, as many authors would attest to, many barriers still exist (e.g. Eagly (2001), EHRC (2009), Lond, (2010)). Stereotyping and bias are issues which organizations need to understand and tackle to ensure fairness. Much is left to rhetoric about equal opportunity and diversity, but where adequate diagnosis of the organizational issues are not conducted, so therefore implementation of successful strategies are limited.
Women who break through the glass ceiling may also face a glass cliff whereby they are more likely than men to occupy risky or precarious leadership positions. It is still difficult for women to break the glass ceiling to reach the top echelons in organizations, with still very few women at the top of organizations, as some research has shown</ref> Lond, B. (2010) A quantitative and qualitative exploration of performance appraisal in financial services</ref>.
Many believe that men in female-dominated professions, such as education or nursing, also face a glass ceiling. However others (Hutlin, 2003) believe that due to the widely existing role model for men, in these sectors they even experience a "glass escalator" effect, where they are promoted quickly into top positions.
- Brass Ceiling - In the traditionally male-dominated fields of law enforcement and military service, some people use the term “brass ceiling” to describe the difficulty women have when they try to rise up in the ranks. "The brass" denotes the decision-makers at the top of an organization, especially in the military; it is an example of synecdoche.
- Stained-Glass Ceiling is a sociological phenomenon in religious communities similar to the concept of the "glass ceiling." The concept revolves around the apparent difficulty for women who seek to gain a role within church leadership.
- Bamboo Ceiling - The exclusion of Asian-descendants from executive and managerial roles on the basis of subjective factors such as "lack of leadership potential" or "inferior communication ability" where the East Asian-descendants candidate has superior objective credentials such as education in high-prestige universities (in comparison to their white counterparts with only lower-prestige university credentials). For example, research shows that there are a decent number of partners at leading prestigious law firms in the United States who did not attend top notch law schools. However, you will seldom find an East Asian American partner of a leading law firm who did not attend a "Top 16 Law School" (according to the US News ranking).
- Concrete Ceiling – This is a term used to describe the type of barrier minority woman encounter. Caucasian women may face the glass ceiling in the workforce, but be able to break through it from time to time; however, minority women’s glass ceiling tends to be more solid and unyielding. This ‘concrete ceiling’ is due to minority women facing both issues of sexism and racism which intensifies their obstructions in advancing within the labor market.
- Expatriate Glass Ceiling - After breaking through the first level of the glass ceiling, many women are beginning to face an additional barrier. This is a term used to describe this second level of obstruction which prevents women in managerial positions from receiving foreign management assignments, projects, and experiences that is becoming increasingly more important for promotion into the upper-level managerial positions as documented by Insch, McIntyre, and Napier.
- Glass Closet - The exclusion of openly gay men and women from certain jobs, especially in the media.
- Glass elevator (or glass escalator) - Some believe there is a rapid promotion of men over women, especially into management, in female-dominated fields such as nursing.They say men in these fields are promoted with ease – they actually have to struggle not to advance due to facing invisible pressures and expectations to move up from where they currently are. This is based on traditional gender roles and stereotypes that men are expected to be in the chief roles, while women are to be in the subordinate positions. Therefore, in the fields where men are less common, they receive differential treatment that favors them to exert their authority and control in the workplace. Others believe that men in female-dominated professions are discriminated against and treated worse than women, the way women are treated in other professions.
- Glass cliff - A situation wherein someone has been promoted into a risky, difficult job where the chances of failure are higher.
- Celluloid ceiling, referring to the small number of women in top positions in Hollywood, as documented by Lauzen (2002) and others.
- Glass Labyrinth - referring to something related to a maze that one can find the way out of and get through; otherwise thought of as finding a path through power in an organization.
- Sticky Floor - refers to women who are trapped in low-wage, low mobility jobs in state and local government.
- Sticky Ladder - A term used to describe women's struggle to reach the top of the corporate ladder. This term describes the theory that women are not incapable of reaching the top; they just get "stuck" on the middle rungs of the ladder.
- Glass Wall - Refers to the phenomenon of high rates of women advancing to executive positions but only in certain industries.
The effect has also inspired a musical, bearing the same name. "Glass Ceiling" (2006), written by Bret VandenBos and Alex Krall, examined and parodied the idiosyncrasies of both males and females in the corporate workplace.
- Affirmative Action
- Equal pay for women
- Feminization of poverty
- Gender role
- Gender equality
- Glass cliff
- Gray ceiling
- Social equality
- Stained-glass ceiling
- Gender Inequality
- Opting out of the labor force
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