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While the phrase glass ceiling is metaphorical, many women who find themselves bumping their heads on it find it very real indeed. It is most often used to describe the sexist attitude many women run into at the workplace. In a discussion of ascending the corporate ladder, the word “ceiling” implies that there is a limit to how far someone can climb it. Along with this implied barrier is the idea that it is glass, meaning that, while it is very real, it is transparent and not obvious to the observer. The term is most often applied in business situations in which women feel, either accurately or not, that men are deeply entrenched in the upper echelons of power, and women, try as they might, find it nearly impossible to break through.
Gay Bryant wrote an article in Adweek containing the first documented use of the term in 1984. It became a permanent part of the American lexicon with a subsequent article in the Wall Street Journal published on 24 March 1986 by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt. While the term may be casually used, the US Department of Labor took it very seriously in 1991 when they issued a definition of it, stating that a glass ceiling is made up of "artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions." The Department went on to establish a commission to investigate it in an effort to "level the playing field."
Other extensions of the glass ceiling include the glass elevator or escalator, which implies that there is an invisible vehicle that transports men up the through the ranks of corporate power. Glass cliff refers to a position that a woman may take that will put her in the precarious position of utter professional disaster if she fails. A take off on the term is the celluloid ceiling, which refers to the limits that are found in Hollywood.
While many women insist that there are real barriers to accessing male-dominated positions in business, many challengers say that it exists mostly because women choose to focus more of their time on family and, in the end, cannot dedicate as much time to their career. Others claim that women think they want to focus on their career, but in reality choose family instead. They cite a 2005 report that 43% of highly qualified, educated women with children left their jobs voluntarily at some stage of their careers. Although 93% wanted to return to work, only 74% did so and only 40% went back to a full time position. Of those women who wanted to return to work, only 5% desired to return to the position they had left.
Some industries have suffered the brunt of criticism about past blatant sexism, with legal judgments punishing companies Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley for their discriminatory practices. More recently, the investing industry has made huge efforts to recruit and train women for top positions. Changes are slow however, since currently, though women represent 33% of the best in the banks analyst classes, only 25% of newly hired associates are women. Only 14% of the top executives in the banking industry are women, and in 2005, one report showed that women make $0.80 US Dollars (USD) for every $1 USD that men make. Many say that improvement, no matter how small, shows that there are cracks developing in the glass ceiling.