Glass Ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” is used to define a limit that is placed on either women or minorities, who are unable to advance in the workplace due to their gender and/or race. The metaphor is believed to have originated during a conversation that occurred in July 1979, between two female coworkers who were employed by Hewlett–Packard at the time.

The “glass ceiling” concept went on to gain popularity during the 1980s, when it first appeared in print in publications, including Adweek and The Wall Street Journal, after women in professional positions referenced the term during interviews. To explore this concept, consider the following glass ceiling definition.

Definition of Glass Ceiling


  1. A term describing the unfair limit placed on women and minorities that allows them to see the advanced professional opportunities, but that actually prevents them from securing those opportunities


July 1979         Americanism

What is a Glass Ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” describes the situation that women and minorities often face in which they find it difficult or even impossible to climb the corporate ladder and secure an advanced professional position, simply because of their gender or race. It is an opposition to the popular motivational phrase “the sky’s the limit.” The ceiling is said to be glass because, while it allows everyone to see “the sky” (i.e. elite professional opportunities), some are still prohibited from ever reaching it, through no fault of your own.

Interestingly, those who have researched the glass ceiling have determined that it does not usually apply to black men, and that such obstacles in the workplace apply more often to women in general, rather than to minorities in general, or to a particular race.

Obstacles in the Workplace

So what is it exactly that holds women back from achieving a more advanced position in the place of business? Several obstacles in the workplace exist that can – and often do – obstruct a woman’s professional development.

Sexual Harassment

The first obstacle in the workplace is sexual harassment, which is still prevalent – especially for women in managerial positions; and, while most companies will reprimand the offender, that is unfortunately as far as the punishment will go. It is rare that an offender will be fired for misconduct.

More often than not, he is given nothing more than a slap on the wrist (or several). For this reason, it is understandable why many women are afraid to report when they are victims of sexual harassment; thinking that the backlash is not worth the risk, when they know that no benefit can come from speaking up.

Boys’ Clubs

Another obstacle in the workplace, which becomes more common as you get closer to the top, is the continued existence of “boys’ clubs.” Men often promote other men to higher positions because they want to work with their former colleagues, or with friends they went to school with – men, who they can relate to better than women.

These hiring choices result in the age-old office “clique,” a “club” that women are discouraged from joining. Women are offered fewer business travel opportunities, wherein they would be able to co-mingle with other top executives because they are not viewed as policymakers. So the end result is that the women are “left at home,” while the men “take care of business” abroad.

Job Segregation

Job segregation is another issue that is still incredibly common, and this makes it almost impossible for a woman to land a position of power. Case in point:

For example:

Amelia is a legal secretary who has worked at her powerful male boss’ side for twenty years, because there are no opportunities for advancement. She knows that, should the company eventually go underwater, or her attorney decide to retire, she can always depend on her gender to secure another dead-end secretarial position, because nobody wants to hire a male secretary.

Even when women can secure jobs of a slightly higher caliber, they are typically jobs that don’t lead to leadership positions. Nor do these jobs offer a woman any notable significance as an employee of the company, rather she becomes just another cog in the machine.

Lack of Anti-Discrimination Enforcement

Several decisions issued by the Supreme Court have made it nearly impossible for women and minorities to be able to prove they are being discriminated against, and that their abusers should be punished accordingly. On a smaller scale, women’s complaints of discrimination or harassment are often not taken seriously when reported to their male superiors.

Men tend to view women’s complaints to be less severe than the women “make them out to be,” and some have gone as far as defending inappropriate behavior as a way of “putting a woman in her place.” There is a feeling among women who do lodge complaints that they are doing nothing more than shouting into the void, and when one woman gets burned, others are likely to feel that it’s not even worth it to try.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

As of July of 2014, Fortune Magazine reported that there were 51 female CEOs in charge of Fortune 1000 companies, and of those 51, 24 headed top 500 companies. While 51 may seem a paltry number, with 24 being even more so, it is actually inspiring, as the total number of female CEOs has been on the rise. This trend serves as a great example of the glass ceiling perhaps becoming an archaic concept one day; and that, perhaps, breaking the glass ceiling may be possible.

Despite the fact that women run only five percent of Fortune 1000 companies, those companies are responsible for generating seven percent of the Fortune 1000’s total profits. Some of the largest companies run by women include General Motors (Mary Barra), Home Shopping Network (Mindy Grossman), and Xerox (Ursula Burns).

Even more inspiring is that less than half of these 51 women have MBAs, making the goal of becoming a female CEO more attainable. Further, more women in the Fortune 1000 are married and have children than those in the national average, so it is becoming increasingly more acceptable for women to balance family life and a career – and less likely that they will be turned down for a promotion simply because they have, or will one day want, children.

Glass Ceiling Example in Politics

Hillary Clinton, in her 2016 campaign to become president, embraced the concept of breaking the glass ceiling with relish. To kick off the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Clinton showed a video of the 43 men who had thus far served as president, which transitioned into her digitally breaking the glass ceiling; that is, “shattering” the portraits of these men with her smiling face – complete with glass-breaking sound effects.

Clinton made history by becoming the first female to receive an official nomination by a major political party, to be its presidential candidate. Clinton’s nomination paved the way for future female politicians to run for president as well, which is perhaps the ultimate example of the glass ceiling being broken. If one woman can run for president of an entire country, fewer women are likely to be denied the objectively smaller opportunity to run her own business. It is even up for debate as to whether or not a glass ceiling still exists anymore in this country, now that a woman has done the impossible and achieved the highest nomination in the land.

Interestingly, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a woman president was considered controversial. in 1995, when Clinton was serving as First Lady to her husband, President William Jefferson Clinton, Walmart banned a t-shirt from their shelves that showed Margaret from the animated series Dennis the Menace claiming “Someday a woman will be President!” Walmart considered the shirt “offensive,” saying that it went against the “family values” that the company held dear. After pulling the shirt, Walmart became so inundated with complaints that they were forced to order and sell 30,000 units of the shirt worldwide.

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins

Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins is a landmark case that serves as a prime example of a glass ceiling’s existence. Ann Hopkins, who was an employee of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm, was passed up for a partnership promotion for two years in a row. When Hopkins first learned that she was being denied the promotion, her supervisor had advised her that going forward, if she wanted another shot at the promotion, then she should make more of an effort to walk, talk, and dress more feminine; and to wear make-up and jewelry more often, and to style her hair.

Hopkins proved to be more than qualified for a promotion and often outperformed her peers, but her male co-workers believed they wouldn’t be comfortable working alongside her as a partner, because she didn’t fit the bill insofar as how they expected a woman to look and act. Upon being denied a promotion for the second year in a row, Hopkins resigned and sued the firm for violating her rights, in accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It was ultimately determined by both the district court and the federal circuit court of appeals that the only reason why Hopkins was denied the promotion was due to discrimination based on her gender, and that it had nothing to do with her performance. Price Waterhouse’s burden was to prove that Hopkins would have still been denied the promotion if she had not been female, and the firm could not meet this burden of proof.

The case ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed both of the lower courts’ rulings, saying in a nutshell that Hopkins had failed to meet the burden of proof that would have established that she was, in fact, discriminated against solely because of her gender. The Court established the concept that a “mixed-motive” may have been at play in an employment decision, ultimately ruling in favor of Price Waterhouse.

Although Hopkins was denied the promotion, and despite being told that if she simply changed her appearance and behavior that she would be able to secure the partnership the following year, Hopkins was ultimately passed over anyway – making this an excellent example of glass ceiling discrimination. The partnership was visible (“the sky’s the limit!”), but no matter how hard she tried, and no matter how high she climbed, Hopkins simply could not break the glass ceiling.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Burden of Proof – An obligation to prove one’s assertion.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Minority – A group differing from the majority of a population, especially in race, religion, ethnic background, or sexual orientation.
  • Sexual Harassment – Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical acts of a sexual nature that tend to create a hostile or offensive work environment.