Glass Ceiling

Glass CeilingIn recent decades, women and people of color have made considerable progress in moving into management jobs, but they tend to be concentrated in lower and middle levels in the management hierarchy. Particularly at large, private sector companies, the majority of key senior-management positions are still held by Caucasian men. The term glass ceiling is a metaphor that has been used to describe this situation. It refers to an invisible but impenetrable barrier that prevents qualified women and people of color from advancing to senior-management jobs.

The possible existence of a glass ceiling is important from the perspectives of both individuals and their organizations. For example, women and members of minority racial or ethnic groups may find that regardless of their qualifications and talent, artificial glass-ceiling barriers sometimes limit their career advancement opportunities. Moreover, when organizations allow the glass ceiling to exist for women and people of color, these organizations are deprived of the diverse talents and perspectives that women and people of color could bring to critical leadership and decision-making positions. Furthermore, managers who realize that their career advancement is blocked by glass-ceiling barriers may become frustrated and leave their companies to seek better career opportunities elsewhere. This entry begins with a historical perspective on the glass ceiling, followed by the current status, and examples of theoretical explanations and research into whether or why a glass ceiling might exist.

Historical Perspective

The glass ceiling was not widely discussed until the mid-1980s, when two Wall Street Journal reporters used the term in an article about women managers who couldn’t seem to break through a “glass ceiling” that blocked them from advancing to senior-management jobs. In addition, these reporters pointed out that women managers tended to receive lower pay and have less authority than male managers. Thus, the term was originally introduced in connection with women’s careers, but other authors pointed out that members of minority racial and ethnic groups faced similar barriers that prevented them from advancing to executive-level jobs.

Glass-ceiling issues received even more public attention when the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and required the president and members of Congress to appoint a Glass Ceiling Commission, chaired by the Secretary of Labor. The commission was created to investigate glass-ceiling barriers and make recommendations about how to eliminate these barriers and increase opportunities for women and people of color to advance into organizational management and decision-making positions.

The Federal Glass Ceiling Commission issued a report summarizing its findings in 1995 and confirmed that there did appear to be a glass ceiling blocking advancement of women and people of color in U.S. businesses. For example, 97 percent of the senior managers in Fortune 1000 industrial companies were White, and 95 percent were men, despite the fact that approximately 57 percent of the workforce was made up of females or members of minority racial or ethnic groups. The report identified three levels of glass-ceiling barriers: (1) societal barriers, such as stereotypes and prejudice associated with gender, race, and ethnicity; (2) structural barriers in organizations, including failure to recruit women and people of color; organizational climates that could alienate these groups; and barriers that could limit their opportunities to advance; and (3) governmental barriers, including inadequate monitoring and law enforcement. Based on examples of companies that had made progress in addressing these barriers, the commission also pointed out characteristics of successful glass-ceiling initiatives, such as having top-management support, linking initiatives to the organization’s strategic plan, addressing stereotypes, tracking progress, and holding key managers accountable.

Current Status

In recent years, women and people of color have made some progress in attaining senior-management positions. For example, research by the Catalyst organization found that in 1995, only 8.7 percent of the corporate officers of Fortune 500 companies were women, but in 2002, women’s representation had increased to 15.7 percent, and 1.6 percent of the corporate officers were women of color. However, women and people of color tend to be better represented at higher management levels in the public sector (i.e., government jobs) than in the private sector. Thus, recent research suggests that the glass ceiling has not yet gone away, but women and people of color may find better career advancement opportunities in some types of organizations than in others.

Theories and Research

A number of different theories have been developed to explain whether or why the glass ceiling exists. Some explanations for the underrepresentation of women and people of color in senior management focus on characteristics of individuals, and other explanations focus on various types of organizational barriers to career advancement of women and members of minority racial and ethnic groups. Examples of each approach are described in the sections that follow.

Glass-ceiling Explanations Based on Individual Characteristics

Theories that focus on individual characteristics propose that women and people of color are underrepresented in senior management not because of their gender or race but because they lack experience, skills, motivation, personal characteristics, or other qualifications that are needed to perform these jobs successfully. For example, a woman may be considered less qualified for a promotion than a man of similar age if she has fewer years of managerial experience; thus, in this case, the man may be promoted because of his greater experience rather than his gender. Examples of explanations based on individual characteristics include the human capital theory and self-selection.

The human capital theory, developed by economists such as Gary S. Becker, is a well-known theory that focuses on individual characteristics to explain differences in career outcomes, such as advancement and compensation. According to this theory, individuals with better qualifications, such as more education, job training, and relevant work experience, receive better jobs and organizational rewards because they have more to offer their organizations than do individuals who are less qualified. Although research has shown that differences in human capital can explain a portion of the gender or racial gap in career success, most studies also find that some portion of the gap cannot be explained by human capital variables. In addition, organizational research has found that comparable human capital qualifications do not always ensure that men and women managers will be equally successful in career advancement. While less research has compared minority and majority group managers, there is some evidence that human capital qualifications have a greater payoff in career advancement for Caucasian managers than for African American managers. Thus, human capital appears to be important in explaining career advancement but does not fully explain why there are relatively few numbers of women and people of color in senior management.

Another perspective is that group differences in corporate advancement can be explained by self-selection. According to this explanation, women and people of color may be less likely to hold senior-management positions because they have less interest or are less willing to do what is required to attain these types of positions. For example, gender differences in corporate advancement are sometimes attributed to women’s involvement with family and household responsibilities that interfere with the long work hours, travel, or relocations required for succeeding in a demanding managerial career. However, this explanation does not hold for many women and people of color who encounter glass-ceiling barriers to their advancement but either do not have family responsibilities or are willing to meet the requirements of demanding managerial jobs regardless of family and personal responsibilities.

A different explanation for self-selection is provided by Robert Lent, Steven Brown, and Gail Hackett’s social cognitive theory, which suggests that self-selection is sometimes based on awareness of external barriers rather than a lack of interest on the part of the individual. According to this theory, women and people of color may be less confident than Caucasian men about their ability to succeed in managerial careers because they expect to encounter organizational barriers and lack of support that will limit their opportunities. Moreover, because of these external barriers, women and people of color may decide to lower their career expectations or pursue other types of careers in which they expect to encounter fewer barriers.

Glass-ceiling Explanations Based on Organizational Barriers

A number of explanations for the glass ceiling focus on various types of organizational barriers that make it more difficult for women and people of color than for their Caucasian male counterparts to advance to senior management. Examples of these barriers include gender and racial bias in organizational selection and promotion decisions, exclusion from interpersonal networks that can facilitate career advancement, and occupational segregation.

A great deal of research indicates that there are widely shared stereotypes or beliefs about the characteristics of various groups, including gender and racial groups, and that these stereotypical characteristics are often assumed to apply to individual members of a particular group. For example, based on traditional stereotypes, women might be assumed to be nurturing, and men might be assumed to be assertive. Moreover, jobs may become gender typed, which means that they are believed to be more appropriate for men or for women, based on either the gender of typical incumbents or the perception that successful performance requires stereotypic gender-related attributes. For example, management jobs, particularly at senior levels, are generally believed to be male gender typed because these jobs are usually held by men and are perceived to require stereotypical male attributes, such as assertiveness and achievement orientation. According to Madeline E. Heilman’s lack-of-fit model, men are more likely to be chosen for male-gender-typed jobs, such as senior-management jobs, because men’s stereotypical attributes are perceived to be a better fit with requirements of these positions than are women’s stereotypical attributes. Thus, there may be gender bias against women when organizational decision makers select people to fill these positions.

Although more research has been conducted about gender bias than about racial bias in managerial selection decisions, some research suggests that group stereotypes can make it more difficult for members of minority racial and ethnic groups to be chosen for senior-management positions. Research has found that stereotypical attributes associated with specific racial groups differ; for example, Asian Americans have been described as technically oriented but not good at supervising other people; Latinos have been described as unassertive; and African Americans have been described as incompetent. Although the specific stereotypes differ across groups, none of these attributes is consistent with requirements for success in senior-management positions, suggesting that there is also likely to be a perceived lack of fit for members of these racial groups with senior-job requirements, making it less likely that they would be selected for these types of jobs.

A make it more difficult for women and people of color to be promoted to senior management, but research has also shown that these groups report difficulty obtaining developmental assignments that would help them learn new skills needed for promotion to higher-level positions. In addition, perhaps because women and people of color are not always viewed as having the potential to advance, research has shown that they are less likely to receive assignments that give them visibility and contact with senior managers. Thus, to the extent that subtle selection bias and stereotypes make it more difficult for women and people of color to obtain critical developmental assignments, these individuals become less competitive for future advancement opportunities.

Research has also shown that social capital, which refers to the number and quality of an individual’s relationships with other people, is related to organizational advancement. However, Rosabeth M. Kanter’s groundbreaking research found that when there were very few women in an organizational unit, they were often excluded from informal interactions with their male counterparts. Similarly, other research has shown that network relationships are more common among demographically similar individuals. Thus, to the extent that there are few women or people of color at a particular managerial level, it is more difficult for these individuals to form extensive networks. When these individuals are excluded from informal networks with Caucasian male managers, they miss out on critical information about career opportunities as well as support and sponsorship from other managers.

Research has also shown that having mentors, especially Caucasian male mentors, is associated with career advancement for managers but that women and people of color are less likely than Caucasian males to have Caucasian male mentors. Because there are relatively few women and people of color in senior management at many organizations, managers from these groups have few successful role models to emulate.

Another explanation for the glass ceiling is that within organizations there may be occupational segregation, or “glass walls,” with the most desirable jobs held by Caucasian men rather than by women and people of color. For example, women and people of color are more likely to hold staff support jobs in areas such as human resources or public relations rather than the more critical line positions that involve managing business functions, such as manufacturing or selling products or services. Occupational segregation has important career consequences because lack of line management experience is often cited as one of the key reasons that women and people of color fail to be promoted to top management.

Finally, some theorists note that because men have traditionally held the most powerful organizational jobs, organizations often have “male” cultures and value systems. Research has found, for example, that both women and people of color who want to advance in the corporate hierarchy may have to modify their behavior to fit the corporate culture. In addition, organizational cultures that embrace traditional male values may not recognize employees’ needs to balance work with family or other personal responsibilities or interests. Because women continue to devote more time to family responsibilities than do men, women may have difficulty advancing in an organization in which employees’ needs to balance work with family and personal responsibilities are not recognized and supported. Although many organizations offer family-friendly benefits, such as flexible work arrangements or leaves of absence to care for family members, research has shown that without a supportive culture, employees may be reluctant to utilize these programs. Also, there is research evidence that employees who take advantage of benefits such as leaves of absence may be penalized with fewer subsequent promotions.


Although the situation has improved in recent years, women and people of color are still not well represented in the senior-management ranks of large, private sector companies, suggesting that the glass ceiling may persist. As the review of various explanations for the glass ceiling indicates, these barriers are often complex and difficult to tackle.

On the other hand, in recent years, some encouraging research has highlighted strategies that successful women and people of color have used to overcome these barriers and rise to the executive suite. For example, studies of these executives have found that key advancement strategies include finding opportuni­ties to prove their competence and developing rela­tionships with powerful mentors and sponsors. Other research has found that companies with strong senior-management commitment to workforce diversity can dismantle glass-ceiling barriers and that women and people of color are more likely to advance in organizations with systematic human resource processes to help prevent selection bias and in organizations that emphasize internal development and promotion of employees. Thus, although glass-ceiling barriers have not been eliminated, recent research suggests that some progress is being made.

See also:


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