Glass Ceiling

Definition

The term glass ceiling is used to describe an impassable barrier that keeps a certain group of individuals from advancing their careers regardless of their qualifications.  Traditionally, a glass ceiling was used to describe the lack of opportunity in the workplace for women to advance their careers.

Explanation

The term glass ceiling is a metaphor which describes a woman's ability to see an opportunity for advancement (through the glass), yet an impenetrable barrier (ceiling) prevents them from reaching the executive ranks in the workplace.  While the term originally referred to the lack of opportunity for qualified women, it now applies to groups such as minority men.

The concept of a glass ceiling first appeared in a presentation by Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber in July 1979 at a Conference of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press.  Katherine Lawrence and Marianne Schreiber were both working for Hewlett-Packard at that time.  The term gained notoriety in March 1986, when the Wall Street Journal published the article:  "The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier that Blocks them from the Top Jobs."

Companies thought to exhibit glass ceilings will have one or more of the following attributes:

  • The gender and race among a company's executive ranks is significantly different than individuals holding lower level positions.
  • The difference in the gender and race among a company's executive ranks cannot be explained by the qualifications of individuals holding lower level positions.
  • The gender or racial inequality becomes more apparent over the course of an employee's career.

Glass ceilings exist despite Federal Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Laws that protect women and minorities from discrimination in the workplace.

Related Terms

hostile work environment, diversity, corporate culture, interpersonal skills, employee engagement, lateral job transferMyers-Briggs Type Indicator