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What is the Brass Ceiling?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

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 term is an obvious reference to the “glass ceiling” of the business world, incorporating the slang term “brass” for high-ranking officials in law enforcement and the military. While women and minorities started to have success in breaking through the glass ceiling in the late 20th century, the brass ceiling continues to be a major obstacle, for a variety of reasons.

In order to surmount the brass ceiling, a woman must often prove herself to be even more capable than her peers, because women are sometimes held to a much higher standard, especially by traditionalists who would prefer not to see women in law enforcement and the armed forces at all. Women who seek long-term careers in the military or in law enforcement are often forced to endure much more than their male counterparts, as in addition to working hard to distinguish themselves, they must also contend with sexism from their employers and coworkers.

Obviously, the brass ceiling is not a problem in every branch of law enforcement or in the military, and many career women enjoy very successful careers with friendly coworkers and employees. However, the problem is pervasive enough that several attempts have been made to enforce equal opportunity employment in these fields, including legislation in congress.

In the military, the issue of the brass ceiling is complicated by the refusal to allow women in certain combat roles. This sometimes means that women do not have the same chances to show that they excel, which may prevent them from rising in the ranks as quickly as they could. A number of rationales are used to keep women out of certain positions in the military, ranging from concerns about unit cohesion to the argument that women are inherently weaker than men, and therefore less suited for combat positions. As the efforts of women in other positions in the military suggest, these arguments are a bit spurious.

Women in law enforcement may not be banned from serving in specific capacities, but they still have to deal with the brass ceiling. It is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies to contain large numbers of former military personnel, who many bring entrenched ideas with them from the military which make advancement challenging for women. The fact that female police chiefs, agency heads, and top-ranking officials are rare suggests that the brass ceiling endures in the law enforcement community despite efforts to encourage more diverse hiring and promotion practices.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By jonpurdin — On Jun 11, 2011

@MalakAslan – that is definitely an interesting application of the term, brass ceiling. I really admire women who have pushed through these barriers. It takes great courage and dedication.

Despite some skepticism these women have proven themselves to be capable, respected, and successful in their careers. It is to their credit that more and more young women see the possibilities in their choices as limitless.

Not too many years ago we saw the first woman in U.S. history become a four-star general in all of the U.S. armed forces. That is quite a barrier to penetrate.

By MalakAslan — On Jun 09, 2011

Another interesting application of the term, brass ceiling, is a story about Megumi Kanda who is a trombone player with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

The brass ceiling, in this instance, is holding a position as one of the principal chairs of a brass instrument section in a full-time U.S. orchestra.

Earlier this year, Kanda performed a concerto composed just for her, Geoffrey Gordon’s “Trombone Concerto,” which, I would imagine, is another rare milestone for a woman trombone player.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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