What is the Glass Ceiling?

For students pursuing a psychology degree and focusing on the organizational application of the concepts they master, the glass ceiling is a critical concept. While women and marginalized ethnicities have long known of the practical existence of this particular invisible barrier to their success, it’s a relatively new term within the discipline. The article below will provide exemplars and examine the finer points of the glass ceiling theory to offer interested readers and students with a clear idea of what it is and how it impacts individual performance.

The Sky is Not the Limit

It is an uncomfortable truth that white privilege and suppression of women and minorities tend to manifest in concrete social structures. Acknowledging this, one may also recognize the less tangible barriers to advancement and empowerment, which are decidedly more slippery and less easily dismantled. The glass ceiling particularly impacts women, primarily because the system of reward and promotion through recognition is designed to exclude them.

Since the term was coined in 1986, many efforts have been made to remedy these oversights. However, sex-based discrimination still subtly manifests in the upper echelons of many corporate entities. It is particularly apt as a term for this reason. Although women and marginalized ethnic communities experience its very real presence, it remains invisible, especially to those who benefit most and first from its existence.

Of course, there is plenty of room in the lower ranks of any corporation for these skilled individuals, and companies continue to draw benefits from their participation. The key to understanding why the ceiling is so effective is seeing that it resists dissolution, even while retreating upwards in the corporate hierarchy. Today, while women have made great strides towards recognition and inclusion, they still represent less than five percent of organizational leadership and board of directors’ positions.

In the Pink of Inequality

According to an article in The Economist, there is mounting evidence of another phenomenon tightly bound to the glass ceiling. The frankly sexist roots of such impediments are often linked to the assumption that a woman is more bound to her reproductive role than pursuing career achievement. While the term itself presents a compact and unit-based image—a single impediment—many scholars and invested parties now understand that the idea is indicative of a series of barriers at every level of a corporate hierarchy. These are bound to broader social inequalities.

One such that often greets women who succeed in navigating the earlier stumbling blocks and attain a high-ranking corporate position is that of unequal pay. The gendered wage gap is less apparent in the lower ranks of any corporation, but it is instituted and reinforced by a specific aspect of corporate etiquette. Individuals are expected to keep their salary a secret from one another, and women are especially discouraged from negotiating raises or salary benefits commensurate with their experience and duties. When coupled to any of the other manifestations of the glass ceiling, or glass escalator as it is more aptly characterized, the pay gap takes on an especially ominous note.

The broader social mores of a culture are instituted in corporate culture. Until the 80s, only a small percentage of law degrees and Masters in Business Administration (MBA) were taken by women. It was expected that, even if a woman were well educated and ambitious, she would eventually succumb to perceived gender roles and take on the challenges of motherhood. This would, quite naturally in the eyes of men, exclude her from competition for the coveted positions within the upper ranks of business hierarchies, because she would be bound to the closed domain of the household, caring for husband and children.


As cultures move into the 21st century, it is imperative that statistics be accurately compiled and publicly discussed. The corporate discourse must include this feature of inequality and disenfranchisement. To do otherwise hampers both business culture and the broader social sphere because women must now earn competitive salaries. The glass ceiling and its accompanying features of gender- and ethnicity-based oppression must be dismantled.

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