What Is The Glass Ceiling & How To Break It? History & Effect

Written by Harini Natarajan, Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner

The sky is the only limit if you want to achieve something. If you believe in yourself, you can reach all the heights. However, there is an invisible glass ceiling that restrains certain groups’ mobility. This impenetrable but perceptible barrier inhibits women and minorities from progressing beyond a particular level of an organization’s hierarchy. In straight words, the glass ceiling keeps the top positions and occupations for the ’privileged boys’ (in many countries, it is a white man’s privilege).

In this article, we look at the concept of the glass ceiling and how this potent metaphor is a huge problem for women, minorities, and the economy as a whole. Continue reading to know more.

What Is The Glass Ceiling?

The phrase ‘glass ceiling’ was initially used to refer to women who could not break through a certain threshold when attempting to advance in their careers. It now also applies to other minorities facing hurdles that prevent them from achieving upper-level positions and leadership roles in the corporate world.

Often, these invisible obstacles occur due to discriminatory promotion practices and workplace prejudices. The marginalized groups, such as women and people of color, have a hard time overcoming inherent sexism and sometimes unintentional prejudices that are either embedded in a specific company’s culture or the entire industry.

This metaphor is used across different occupations and industries. The thing about the glass ceiling is that it is very difficult to spot and, therefore, can essentially be detected only by statistical effects rather than concrete examples. We don’t see as much evidence of blatant discrimination in the workplace today due to strictly defined corporate policies. However, subtle bias is often worse than blatant discrimination as it is harder to identify and assess.

A Brief History Of The Glass Ceiling

About 40 years ago, Marilyn Loden, an American management consultant and diversity advocate, sat on a panel called “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.” She sat there listening to women blame themselves for their lack of advancement and success at work. When it was her turn to speak, she disagreed with them owing to all the data she had gathered related to why more women were not entering management positions. She said there had to be an invisible barrier to their advancement that people did not recognize. Loden called it the “glass ceiling.”

The term was then used in a 1984 book, The Working Woman Report, by Gay Bryant. Later, it was used in a 1986 Wall Street Journal article on barriers to women in high corporate positions.

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Labour took the concept seriously when it formally addressed the problem in its report The Glass Ceiling Initiative, stating that a glass ceiling is made up of “artificial barriers based on an attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions.”

The initiative was assembled to make recommendations on how to ensure that women and minorities received equal opportunities for advancement as their white male counterparts. The Commission published its findings in 1995, issuing 12 recommendations in the report A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital.

Among the recommendations, the commission advocated that organizations “use affirmative action as a tool,” “select, promote and retain qualified individuals,” and “initiate work/life and family-friendly policies (1).”

[ Read: All You Need To Know About Gender Equity ]

What Is The Glass Ceiling Effect?

According to a paper published in Social Forces in 2001, the popular notion of the glass ceiling effect implies that gender (or other) disadvantages are stronger at the top of the hierarchy than at lower levels and that these disadvantages become worse later in a person’s career. This research found the evidence of a glass ceiling for women, but that it does not follow a similar pattern as racial inequalities among men. Thus, we shouldn’t describe all systems of differential work rewards as “glass ceilings.” They appear to be a distinctive gender phenomenon (2).

So, what is the effect of the glass ceiling?

Basically, the cycle of unfulfilled career expectations among women can spread insecurity and even lead to depression. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, fittingly explains that “many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments. Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they are – impostors with limited skills or abilities.”

Don’t you think this is the outcome of sexism and chauvinism being deeply embedded in the system?

Breaking The Glass Ceiling: What Can Bring About Change?

It is 2019, and the facts are that female leaders/bosses are still in the minority, women are still paid less, and motherhood still carries a risk of complete career derailment. This is the case despite more and more women joining the workplace in the past decade.

As of 2018, the global labor force statistics show the women’s participation rate to be continually rising (it currently stands at 48.5%). Yet, women account for less than a quarter (24%) of senior roles globally (3). So, what is going on? That’s a question that organizations urgently need to address.

Breaking the glass ceiling is a complex affair and requires action on several fronts. The governments, academic institutions, employers ,and women themselves are key players in breaking down the barriers that are holding women back.

[ Read: What Is Intersectional Feminism And Why Do We Need It? ]

Below are a few steps that organizations can take to ensure that women are appropriately represented at top positions:

  • Raise awareness about gender disparity.
  • Educate the management and employees on gender bias.
  • Establish an equal opportunity policy.
  • Create a safe and respectful work environment.
  • Address preconceptions and stereotypes.
  • Treat gender diversity as a business priority.

The glass ceiling is an invisible barrier that stops women and minorities from advancing to high positions in organizations after reaching a certain level owing to certain prejudices. The glass ceiling hinders the growth and advancement of all women across all societies around the world. It is now time for everyone – institutions, women, and men – to recognize these prejudices and unconscious biases that deprive women of decision-making, power, and leadership positions. The longer society keeps denying the existence of the glass ceiling, the longer women and minorities will inevitably be suppressed by it.


  1. A Solid Investment : Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital” Cornell University
  2. The Glass Ceiling Effect” Social Forces, Oxford University Press
  3. Quick Take: Women in the Workforce – Global” Catalyst

Key Takeaways

  • The glass ceiling reflects obstacles that women and minorities face in achieving leadership positions within corporations.
  • It takes significant effort from many sides to overcome this cycle of unfulfilled career expectations and insecurity.
  • Creating an inclusive workplace requires recognizing these unwritten presumptions which keep minorities and women out of positions of power.

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