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What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling refers to the invisible but real barrier that keeps people in marginalized roles from ascending to senior leadership. 

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Visier HR Glossary

What is the glass ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a term used to signify the invisible, but real (in metaphorical terms) barrier that exists in many organizations which keeps women, and people of color (POC), or those in other marginalized roles from ascending into senior leadership roles. 

The history of the glass ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” was initially coined by Marilyn Loden, a management consultant, in 1978. At that time it specifically applied to women, but the meaning has been broadened over the years to refer to other marginalized groups whose numbers are small at higher levels of organizations due to barriers that keep them from being promoted.

“Hitting the glass ceiling” refers to the final position an individual reaches beyond which they are unable to advance despite having qualifications that make them eligible for higher-level positions. 

The barriers faced are generally related to implicit biases and not specific policies that exist barring certain types of individuals from moving into leadership roles. 

The glass ceiling in the 2020’s

While individuals, organizations and businesses have been trying to break through or eradicate the glass ceiling for decades, there is much progress yet to be made. For instance, while Fortune reported that the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 reached its highest level in 2020, their percentage of representation was at only 7.4%. 

Other groups also continue to be underrepresented in senior leadership and board roles. 

Measuring the impacts of the glass ceiling

Many organizations today continue to be committed to helping women and other marginalized individuals break the glass ceiling and move into higher level roles. 

Visier data has revealed two contrasting realities related to the glass ceiling that exist in organizations today:  

  • In upper management, women are much less likely to succeed a male than men are to succeed a female.

  • In lower management, females are replacing males at higher rates.

A concept closely related to the glass ceiling and serving as an attempt to explain why it may still exist, is the leadership pipeline. The leadership pipeline suggests that one of the reasons women and other marginalized groups are underrepresented in senior leadership roles is that they are also less likely to be hired into certain roles associated with senior leadership positions (e.g., STEM-related roles), or to be promoted up the ladder into increasingly more responsibility roles leading to top spots. 

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