Content Written by Shelly Garbis
What is the glass ceiling?
The ‘glass ceiling’ is both a term and a theory that describes the invisible barrier that prevents women from entering high-level positions in the workplace. This theory describes a pattern of women entering low-level positions with ease but being unable to advance to higher-level positions. Thus, while women can see desired positions of power through the glass ceiling, it nonetheless stands as a barrier that prevents them from advancing. This glass ceiling stems from the systemic gender bias in our society. For centuries, there have been examples of what we think of today as traditional women’s roles. From ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to old epics, women were most commonly portrayed as the caretaker of children, while their male partners hunted, worked, and left the house. While outright sexism has since been recognized as unacceptable by many people, the glass ceiling remains one of the primary reasons why women are not often seen in positions of power.
Origins of the glass ceiling theory
The term glass ceiling was coined by author and feminist Marilyn Loden in 1978 while she was attending a women’s business conference in New York, and it was officially recognized as a term in 1984 when it was added to the Oxford Dictionary.
While women’s participation in the labour force was increasing at the time, women were still largely limited to traditional feminine roles such as nurses, teachers, and receptionists. Accordingly, in the early 1990s women were just starting to be seen in roles that commanded more power such as those of lawyer, doctor, and manager.
Starting in 1991, a series of studies were conducted that focused on the glass ceiling and how it affected women in the workplace. These studies, commissioned under Congress’ Glass Ceiling Act, were conducted to allow women to join higher positions in the workforce. While this was the first time the world turned its eyes on the glass ceiling, it continues to be a problem more than 30 years later.
After the glass ceiling
After the term ‘glass ceiling’ was coined and general awareness of it diffused through society, the gaps in the workplace between men and women slowly started to close. Shortly after the term became well-known, there was an uptick in the number of women breaking into higher positions. According to an article published in 2018 from the University of Chicago, the “trend of women breaking into higher ranks accelerated between 1980 and 2000 but has since slowed” (The University of Chicago, 2018). This shows how companies are motivated to follow societal trends, especially when they attract growth in customers. When people learned about the glass ceiling theory, they became more likely to take their business to companies that acknowledged the trend and acted to remedy it. Accordingly, in the 1990s, in an attempt to grow their businesses, many companies jumped on the trend by hiring more women, thereby causing a growth in the number of women in positions of power. However, after society’s focus on the glass ceiling faded, companies were no longer driven to hire women at the same rate, resulting in a drop in the number of women rising in the ranks of the workforce.
What causes the glass ceiling?
There are many reasons behind the lack of women in the higher workforce. Sexsim and misogyny are some key factors. Many hiring managers prefer to hire men due to their own biases and opinion that men can provide better quality work than women and people of other genders. While taking sexism and misogyny into account, there is still a major gap between men and women in the workplace, suggesting that there are other factors contributing to the glass ceiling.
One factor that contributes to the bias that men can produce a better quality of work than women is the perception that women do not possess the same leadership qualities that men have. A leader needs to be confident, tough, and be able to tell people what to do. While men who possess these qualities are seen as good leaders, women possessing these qualities can be perceived as bossy and unfeminine. Society has pushed women to believe that they need to adopt submissive traits to be likeable, but this makes it more difficult for them in the workplace.
Even though society is trying to close the gap between the number of promotions of men and women by hiring and promoting more women, still women are often subjected to the role of caretaker if they have children, which could lead a hiring manager to believe that a woman cannot commit to the same workload as men. This can make it more difficult for women to obtain jobs. In addition, due to the lack of equity in the hiring process, women are often penalised for requiring paid or unpaid maternity leave, despite society also expecting young women to have children.
The glass ceiling data can also be affected by the number of women that drop out of the workforce before reaching higher levels of management. When working families have children, it often can be hard to juggle childcare and heavy workloads at the same time. In this situation it makes sense for one of the caretakers to step down from their position and focus more on childcare. Unfortunately women are still receiving unequal pay compared to men, which could possibly influence a couple's common decision for the woman to step down from her careers to care for their children.
How Covid-19 has affected the glass ceiling
As the pandemic moved the world into lockdown, many people began setting up home offices, and the world adapted to a new normal of working from home. In addition to workplaces being shut down, many schools switched to remote curriculums. A study was conducted surrounding the topic of family responsibilities during quarantine. It found that women were far more likely to have automatically assumed the child caretaker role compared to their male counterparts, and this negatively impacted their careers. In many cases, women reported that they are not taken as seriously as their male coworkers. Before the pandemic, this could have meant that their opinions carried less weight or that they were not invited to important meetings. During lockdown, a pattern was found in many households that while men were able to create home offices that were comfortable, professional, and quiet spaces for them to work, women were more likely to work at the kitchen table or in their bedrooms. Not only could this stem from them having to watch over their children, but their working environments are not always places where they can be productive, giving them an unfair disadvantage and furthering the image that men are ‘better’ at working.
Bertrand, M. B. (2018, June 1). The glass ceiling. Becker Friedman Institute.
Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://bfi.uchicago.edu/insight/research-summary/the-glass-ceiling-2/
Shattering the glass ceiling: A timeline of how we got here. (2021, September 8).
Paycor. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://www.paycor.com/resource-center/articles/shattering-the-glass-ceiling-timeline/
Lockert, M. (2022, March 10). Understanding what the glass ceiling is and how it
affects women in the workplace. Insider. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Babic, A., & Hansez, I. (2021, March 9). The Glass Ceiling for Women Managers:
Antecedents and Consequences for Work-Family Interface and Well-Being at
Work. Frontiers. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Kagan, J. (2022, October 19). The Glass Ceiling: Definition, History, Effects,
and Examples. Investopedia. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Vargas, T. (2018, March 1). She coined the term 'glass ceiling.' She fears it
will outlive her. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Lufler, R. S., & McNulty, M. A. (2022, December 27). The glass ceiling thickens:
the impact of COVID-19 on academic medicine faculty in the United States.
National Library of Medicine. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Lee, B. (2022, September 19). Honoring Marilyn Loden, Who Coined "The Glass
Ceiling." Gender on the Ballot. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Yellen, J. L. (2020, May). The history of women's work and wages and how it has
created success for us all. Brookings. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Women in the Workplace study. (n.d.). Lean in. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from
Schulpen, T. W. J. (2017, July 6). The glass ceiling: A biological phenomenon.
National Library of Science. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from