The expression glass ceiling has been used to describe artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing to positions of power offering higher salaries and more responsibility and authority. Research has shown that, compared to men and whites, women and racial minorities in professional occupations are concentrated in lower- and middle-level positions and are underrepresented in upper managerial ranks. Positive steps have been taken to promote equality of opportunity, ranging from affirmative action legislation to greater diversity in hiring and promotions on the part of employers. Yet, despite these widely publicized efforts, women and minorities still do not enjoy the same advancement opportunities as men and whites. The continued existence of a glass ceiling can be attributed to an interplay of cultural and structural factors.
There are a number of explanations for the existence of a glass ceiling. The concept of homosocial reproduction suggests that when there is imperfect information on the potential of a candidate, employers or managers generally prefer to hire or promote someone who looks and thinks like them. (The questionable assumption underlying this argument is that people with similar gender, racial, or educational backgrounds tend to think and act alike.) This puts women and minorities are at a competitive disadvantage, because the majority of decisions regarding hiring and promotion are still made by men/whites.
There is much evidence to suggest that “who you know” (network ties) is as important as “what you know” (education, skills) in moving up the organizational hierarchy. Due to their comparatively recent entry into the labor market, women and minorities still have difficulty in setting up and expanding professional connections. Not being able to tap into the “old boy” network is detrimental to their career progress. To crack the glass ceiling, female and minority workers have had to build up their reputation and gain access to resources through relationships with people with status and authority inside and outside their organization, be they acquaintances, mentors, sponsors, or colleagues. Additionally, female and minority workers are especially vulnerable when they are present in only token numbers. Limited representation increases the pressure on them to perform, heightens their differences from the dominant group, and constrains their roles within the organization. This situation will inevitably improve as the presence of women and minorities increases over time.
Much evidence suggests that a range of discriminatory attitudes make women and minorities less likely to get as far as their male/white counterparts with similar backgrounds. Employers may be reluctant to groom women or racial minorities for leadership positions, owing to stereotypes they hold about members of certain groups as well as their concern about potential bias on the part of customers and male/white workers. Employers tend to view women as less dependable and less career-oriented, because of women’s marriage and family responsibilities. Because of their marginal status in society, women and minorities may have difficulty in commanding respect or obedience from male/white subordinates or in exercising authority in negotiations or confrontations. Furthermore, management and administration have traditionally been considered masculine activities. The queuing theory postulates that discrimination results in a gender/race hierarchy in hiring and promotions. Employers tend to prefer male and white workers to female and minority workers. As a result, men/whites tend to monopolize the most desirable jobs, such as management positions, while women and minorities are relegated to low-paying or less-prestigious positions such as staff or technical work.
The existence of the glass ceiling can result in several outcomes for women and minorities:
- Title inflation: For window-dressing purposes, firms may promote women and minorities at a relatively high rate to high-profile positions as tokens or glorified managers without conferring any real or additional authority upon them.
- Job segregation by sex/race: To preserve the existing power structure in an organization and society, employers may place women and minorities in positions or departments that only allow them to supervise female or minority subordinates (e.g., affirmative action or human resource departments).
- Career changes: The glass ceiling that limits how many women and minorities move up the organizational hierarchy may be a powerful incentive for them to contemplate alternative routes to improved occupational status, such as self-employment or setting up a business where they will be their own boss.
Compounding the cultural and structural factors already discussed, declining opportunities in middle and upper management resulting from corporate downsizing may have intensified competition between and discrimination against women and minorities.
SEE ALSO Gender; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender
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Rosenbaum, James E. 1984. Career Mobility in a Corporate Hierarchy. New York: Academic Press.
Tang, Joyce. 1997. The Glass Ceiling in Science and Engineering. Journal of Socio-Economics 26 (4): 383–406.
U.S. Department of Labor. 1991. A Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census.
GLASS CEILING, a discriminatory barrier to the advancement of women into the upper echelons of business, the professions, and government. After discrimination by sex in employment was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it was understood that women would not be seen in top jobs in substantial numbers until many had achieved the necessary experience at intermediate levels. However, the paucity of women in the highest positions decades later suggested that they faced persisting barriers—hence the perception of a "glass ceiling." Even in the absence of an impenetrable barrier at some particular level, fewer promotional opportunities for women than for men at each of many levels produced a scarcity of women at and near the top.
Davidson, Marilyn J., and Cary L. Cooper. Shattering the Glass Ceiling: The Woman Manager. London: Paul Chapman, 1992.
Morrison, Ann M., Randall P. White, Ellen Van Velsor, and the Center for Creative Leadership. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations? Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1992.
Barbara R. Bergmann
See also Discrimination: Sex ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions .