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Glass ceiling

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]


  • Definition 1
  • History 2
  • Gender pay gap 3
  • Removing the glass ceiling 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


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 ceiling was originally introduced outside of print media at the National Press Club in July 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 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 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 [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]

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.[15]

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[16]) 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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19] 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.[20]

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. ^ a b 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. 
  8. ^ Frenkiel, Nora (March 1984). "The Up-and-Comers; Bryant Takes Aim At the Settlers-In". Adweek (Magazine World). Special Report. 
  9. ^ a b c 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. 
  10. ^ a b Bollinger, Lee; O'Neill, Carole (2008). Women in Media Careers: Success Despite the Odds. University Press of America. pp. 9–10.  
  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. ^ Zamfirache, Irina (2010). "Women and politics – the glass ceiling". Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. 
  16. ^ "Women on Corporate Boards". Canada Action Plan. Government of Canada. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  17. ^ "The Global Gender Gap Report 2014". World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Schumpeter. "A Nordic Mystery". The Economist. The Economist. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  19. ^ Sandberg, Sheryl. "Why we have too few women leaders". TED. TED. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  20. ^ "Top 5 Ways Employers can Help Women Advance". Randstad USA. Randstad USA. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 


  • Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (March 1995a). Good for business: Making full use of the nation's human capital (pdf) (Report). Washington DC:  
  • Fox, Mary; Hesse-Biber, Sharlene N. (1984). Women at work. Palo Alto, California: Mayfield Publishing Company.  
  • Hesse-Biber, Sharlene N.; Carter, Gregg L. (2005). Working women in America : split dreams. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Lyness, Karen S.; Thompson, Donna E. (June 1997). "Above the glass ceiling? A comparison of matched samples of female and male executives".  
  • Ponnuswamy, Indra; Manohar, Hansa Lysander (September 2014). "Breaking the glass ceiling - a mixed methods study using Watkins and Marsick’s learning organisation culture model".  

External links

  • Catalyst research report (1996). : Progr (2003).Women in Corporate Leadership Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities?
  • Catalyst. Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership: Same Workplace, Different Realities? New York, N.Y.: Catalyst, 2004, ISBN 978-0-89584-247-3.
  • Catalyst. .2010 Catalyst Census: Financial Post 500 Women Senior Officers and Top Earners
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Carvajal, Doreen. .The Codes That Need to Be Broken The New York Times, January 26, 2011.
  • 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.
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