The term glass ceiling was introduced in the 1980s to refer to an informal but effective limit on how high women could rise in a work organization. This ceiling was “glass” in that women could see above this transparent barrier, and in fact might not realize it was there, until they found they could go no higher. This ceiling is understood to apply to women as a group who are kept from advancing not because of their individual deficiencies, or because of the funnel of fewer opportunities at higher levels, but because they are women. When the Federal Glass Ceiling Act was passed by Congress in 1991, the term was expanded to refer to artificial barriers that prevent the promotion of women or minorities; in current usage, it may refer to limitations on women or people of color. More precisely, a glass ceiling is indicated by a disproportional lack of advancement that cannot be accounted for by productivity and that increases at higher organizational levels.
Support comes first from data showing underrepresentation at high organizational levels in proportion to presence in the workforce. For example, although women constitute about half the managerial workforce, Catalyst’s survey in 2000 showed that only 12.5% of the top corporate officers in Fortune 500 companies are women. At the very top levels—chairman, CEO, president, or executive vice president—only 6.2% are women. In 2003, Catalyst reported that only 13.6% of the directors of these large companies were female, but this was an overestimate of numbers because often the same individual was appointed to more than one board. Most of the 500 companies had at least one woman on their board, but 54 had no women.
Additional support for the concept comes from longitudinal sociological analyses. D. J. Maume has shown increasing disadvantage in advancement for women and minorities over time when productivity is taken into account.
In the early 1990s, the Department of Labor published a report on the glass ceiling. Subsequently, Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (“The Glass Ceiling Act”) set up the Glass Ceiling Commission. This 21-member bipartisan body was charged with studying the glass ceiling and making appropriate recommendations “to eliminate artificial barriers”… and “increase opportunities and developmental experiences of women and minorities.”
Its 1995 report identified barriers at three levels. In society at large, the “supply barrier” of lack of opportunity and the “difference barrier” of stereotypes and bias were noted. Government barriers included lack of vigorous and consistent monitoring and law enforcement, weaknesses in the collection of employment-related data, and inadequate reporting of glass ceiling issues. Barriers internal to business structure included inadequate outreach and recruitment, hostile or unsupportive corporate climates, and problems in moving women and minorities through the internal pipeline to upper management.
The Commission’s final report recommended several things that could be done by government and business. The Federal government should lead by example and improve data collection for tracking the progress of underrepresented groups. It should more strongly enforce antidiscrimination laws and develop ways to make demographic statistics currently being collected by federal agencies publicly available on a voluntary basis. Recommendations to business included demonstration of CEO commitment to workforce diversity. Businesses should include diversity in all business plans and hold managers accountable for meeting advancement goals for underrepresented groups, committing to affirmative action as a tool in this process. Women and people of color should be actively prepared for senior management positions and the corporate workforce should be educated about glass ceiling issues. Family-friendly work-life policies are needed, as well as high-performance workplace standards to encourage autonomy and initiative in all employees.
- (1998). Advancing women in business—the Catalyst guide: Best practices from the corporate leaders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- (2000). 2000 Catalyst census of women corporate officers and top earners. Retrieved from http://www.catalystwomen.org/research/censuses.htm#2000cote
- (2003). 2003 Catalyst census of women board directors. Retrieved from http://www.catalystwomen.org/research/censuses.htm#2000cote
- Glass Ceiling Act of 1991, Pub. L. No. 102–166, 201–210, 105 Stat. 1081 (1991).
- Maume, D. J., Jr. (2004). Is the glass ceiling a unique form of inequality? Evidence from a random-effects model of managerial Work and Occupations, 31, 250–274.
- Morrison, M., White, R.P., Van Velsor, E., & the Center for Creative Leadership. (1992). Breaking the glass ceiling: Can women reach the top of America’s largest corporations? (Updated ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
- S. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. (1995). Good for business: Making full use of the nation’s human capital. Washington, DC: Author.
- S. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. (1995). A solid investment: Making full use of the nation’s human capital. Washington, DC: Author.