Glass Ceiling

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GLASS CEILING
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Latina executive. Although the 20th century saw many improvements for women and minorities in the business world, advocates for equal rights claim that there is still a long way to go. Many upwardly mobile women and men of color face unseen and unspoken barriers as they advance to the upper reaches of management. Source: iStockphoto.

The concept of the glass ceiling originated during the middle 1980s to describe the invisible and artificial barriers that have kept women from promotion to upper management and other higher leadership positions in the business world. Most who support the idea that a glass ceiling exists contend that the disadvantages worsen the higher on the corporate ladder women ascend. The barriers are hierarchical in nature and are seemingly impenetrable. This definition originally addressed the difficulties of women to advance but soon evolved to include both male and female racial/ethnic minorities. Women and minorities are significantly represented within the workforce as a whole and even at middle levels of management, but their numbers in senior executive positions remain quite small. Although the 20th century saw many improvements for women and minorities in the business world, advocates for equal rights claim that despite increasing numbers of women and minorities in top leadership roles in business, there is still a long way to go. There is a belief that both women and minorities continue to face barriers in advancement to positions of leadership in corporations in spite of their much higher overall representation in certain fields and industries. This entry looks at the concept and its social manifestations.

History of a Concept

The phrase glass ceiling was first used in 1984 in an Adweek profile of Gay Bryant, who at the time was the editor of Working Woman magazine. In that profile, she was quoted as saying, “Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling … in the top of middle management and they're stopping and getting stuck.” In 1985, the national chairwoman of the National Organization for Women (NOW) used the phrase in an interview with United Press International, stating that without the women's movement, women would have no chance of moving beyond the glass ceiling. The very next year, in the March 24, 1986, edition of the Wall Street Journal, the term was used by both Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt (who are frequently credited with first using the term in the media) in their article about the challenges faced by women in the business world. In a discussion of ascending the corporate ladder, the word ceiling implies that there is a limit to how far someone can climb before he or she bumps up against a barrier of some kind. To say that the ceiling is glass suggests that, although it is very real, it is transparent and not obvious to the casual observer. It also implies that what is on the other side is both visible yet inaccessible to those facing it. The term glass ceiling is most often applied in business situations where women or minorities believe, either accurately or not, that White men are deeply entrenched in the upper echelons of power and that it is nearly impossible for the women or minorities to break through to that level. The Department of Labor took the concept seriously in 1991 when it addressed the problem formally, stating that a glass ceiling is made up of “artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions.” Senator Robert Dole introduced the Glass Ceiling Act as part of Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. President George H. W. Bush signed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and established a bipartisan Glass Ceiling Commission composed of twenty-one members. The commission was tasked with forming recommendations on the issue for the president and leaders in the corporate world. In 1991,...
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