The Glass Ceiling and Women's History

An Invisible Barrier to Success

Woman Pushing at Glass Ceiling

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"Glass ceiling" means an invisible upper limit in corporations and other organizations, above which it is difficult or impossible for women to rise in the ranks. "Glass ceiling" is a metaphor for the hard-to-see informal barriers that keep women from getting promotions, pay raises and further opportunities. The "glass ceiling" metaphor has also been used to describe the limits and barriers experienced by minority racial groups.

It is glass because it's not usually a visible barrier, and a woman may not be aware of its existence until she "hits" the barrier. In other words, it's not an explicit practice of discriminating against women, though specific policies, practices, and attitudes may exist that produce this barrier without intention to discriminate. 

The term was invented to apply to major economic organizations like corporations, but later began to be applied to invisible limits above which women had not risen in other fields, especially electoral politics.

The U.S. Department of Labor's 1991 definition of glass ceiling is "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions." (Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. U.S. Department of Labor, 1991.)

Glass ceilings exist even in organizations with explicit policies around equality of advancement, when there is implicit bias at work, or even behavior within the organization that ignores or undermines the explicit policy.

Origin of the Phrase

The term "glass ceiling" was popularized in the 1980s.

The term was used in a 1984 book, The Working Woman Report, by Gay Bryant. Later it was used in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article on barriers to women in high corporate positions.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first use of the term was in 1984, in Adweek: "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."

A related term is pink collar ghetto, referring to jobs to which women are often relegated.

Arguments From Those Who Believe There's No Glass Ceiling

  • Women's liberation, feminism and civil rights legislation already provide for women's equality.
  • Women's job choices keep them off of the executive track.
  • Women don't have the right educational preparation for senior executive jobs (e.g. an M.B.A.)
  • Women who do make job choices that put them on the executive track and do have the right educational preparation have not been in the corporation long enough to build up experience — and this will automatically correct itself with time. 

Has There Been Progress Since the 1970s and 1980s?

The conservative feminist organization, Independent Women's Forum, points out that in 1973, 11% of corporate boards had one or more women members, and that in 1998, 72% of corporate boards had one or more women members.

On the other hand, the Glass Ceiling Commission (created by Congress in 1991 as a 20-member bipartisan commission) in 1995 looked at Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 companies, and found that only 5% of the senior management positions were held by women.

Elizabeth Dole once said, "My objective as Secretary of Labor is to look through the 'glass ceiling' to see who is on the other side, and to serve as a catalyst for change."

In 1999 a woman, Carleton (Carly) Fiorina, was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Hewlett-Packard, and she declared that women now faced "no limits whatsoever. There is not a glass ceiling."

The number of women in senior executive positions still lags considerably behind the number of men. A 2008 survey (Reuters, March 2008) showed that 95% of American workers believe that women have made "important advances in the workplace over the last 10 years" but 86% believe that the glass ceiling has not been broken, even if it has been cracked.

Political Glass Ceilings

In politics, it was 1984, the year that this phrase was first used, that Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as a vice-presidential candidate (with Walter Mondale as presidential nominee). She was the first woman nominated for that spot by a major U.S. party.

When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech after narrowly losing the primaries to Barack Obama in 2008, she said, "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." The term became quite popular again after Clinton won the California primary in 2016 and then when she was officially nominated for president, the first woman in that position with a major political party in the United States.