Glass ceiling

A chart illustrating the differences in earnings between men and women of the same educational level (USA 2006)

A glass ceiling is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that keeps a given demographic from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy.[1]

The metaphor was first coined by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high-achieving women.[2][3] In the US, the concept is sometimes extended to refer to obstacles hindering the advancement of minority women, as well as minority men.[2][4] Minority women often find the most difficulty in "breaking the glass ceiling" because they lie at the intersection of two historically marginalized groups: women and people of color.[5] East Asian and East Asian American news outlets have coined the term "bamboo ceiling" to refer to the obstacles that all East Asian Americans face in advancing their careers.[6][7]

Within the same concepts of the other terms surrounding the workplace, there are similar terms for restrictions and barriers concerning women and their roles within organizations and how they coincide with their maternal duties. These "Invisible Barriers" function as metaphors to describe the extra circumstances that women undergo, usually when trying to advance within areas of their careers and often while trying to advance within their lives outside their work spaces.[8]

"A glass ceiling" represents a barrier that prohibits women from advancing toward the top of a hierarchical corporation.

Women in the workforce are faced with "the glass ceiling." Those women are prevented from receiving promotion, especially to the executive rankings, within their corporation. Within the last twenty years, the women who are becoming more involved and pertinent in industries and organizations have rarely been in the executive ranks. Women in most corporations encompass below five percent of board of directors and corporate officer positions.[9]


The United States Federal Glass Ceiling Commission defines the glass ceiling as "the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements."[1]

David Cotter and colleagues defined four distinctive characteristics that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists. A glass ceiling inequality represents:

  1. "A gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee."
  2. "A gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome."
  3. "A gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels."
  4. "A gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career."

Cotter and his colleagues found that glass ceilings are correlated strongly with gender. Both white and minority women face a glass ceiling in the course of their careers. In contrast, the researchers did not find evidence of a glass ceiling for African-American men.[10]

The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers ("glass") through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them ("ceiling").[11] These barriers prevent large numbers of women and ethnic minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.[12] Moreover, this effect prevents women from filling high-ranking positions and puts them at a disadvantage as potential candidates for advancement.[13][14]