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What is the Glass Ceiling?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments
By anon332407 — On Apr 29, 2013

I guess I am never going to understand why the wage gap is still an issue. Are we shopping in different grocery stores and shopping malls? No, not really. Do we buy cars and houses on different plans? Again, no! So why exactly does there have to be a gap? Or you think that women spend less? I doubt that! There are way more single moms than single dads, for instance, so they have to live frugally while men can afford more. I really do not see any logic in that!

By the way, women are much better financers sometimes. They will think many times before they decided to take pay day loans online, while men can be way more impulsive!

By anon319605 — On Feb 13, 2013

The glass ceiling is catty women who sabotage other women. Period. Men who hate women are a very very small part of what constitutes the glass ceiling today. Start looking at the woman hating behavior of women themselves and you'll see what the glass ceiling really is.

By anon234215 — On Dec 11, 2011

You would think seeing as it is the twenty first century, we would have moved on from all this sexist attitude, but no that would be too good to be true. if you don't believe that feminism is still needed and that things like the 'glass ceiling' don't exist think about this.

Why is it that most managers, bosses and politicians men?

Why is it that on average, women do better then men in school and in university, and often end up in lower paid part-time work?

How come the mostly male politicians, many with religious biases, are the ones who make and change the law about abortion when they will never have to go through pregnancy?

How come the average full-time wage for women is still only about 80 percent of the male wage? Yeah, no need for feminism is there?

By malik23 — On Dec 06, 2011

It stinks that there is a such thing as a sexist.

By anon87619 — On May 31, 2010

You have some very good points. Good job!

By olittlewood — On Jan 22, 2008

i think it's true that the glass ceiling does actually exist. of course, not all men are sexist, so it would be unfair to portray them as such. despite a trend towards more gender equality, many men (and women) still hold the traditional belief that women should stay at home to care for their children. for the most part, i agree, but i think that it is a highly personal decision which should not be criticized. some women have to work. that's just the reality. and some women have to take a break from their career to raise their children. while they do lose out on experience and career growth, i think employers should really cut them a little slack for that and not see it as a negative. and if i were president, i would recommend social security credits for women who take off work to raise their children! it's a full time job! ;-)

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