glass ceiling

(noun) An artificial, unseen, and often unacknowledged discriminatory barrier that prevents otherwise qualified people such as women and minorities from rising to positions of leadership and power, particularly within a corporation.

Audio Pronunciation: (glass ceil·ing)

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Usage Notes:

  • Plural: glass ceilings
  • The term is typically attributed to Gay Bryant who used it in interviews and in the book The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the 1980s (1984). However, who and when the phrase was coined is debated.
  • Jane Hyun coined the term bamboo ceiling to describe the experiences of dealing with the glass ceiling for Asians in Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians (2005).
  • The term glass cliff coined by Alex Haslam and Michelle Ryan, describes the precarious leadership positions women are often given when they break through the glass ceiling, such as managing failing departments or dealing with limited resources.
  • The glass escalator coined by Christine Williams in “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the “Female” Professions,” refers to the rampant rise of some employees over others. Originally this term was used in reference to men moving up the hierarchy over women in “female professions” or pink collar jobs but has grown to include aspects of race and ethnicity.
  • The stained-glass ceiling refers to limiting women’s access to positions of authority and power within various religious institutions and systems.

Related Quotations:

  • “The glass ceiling operates so that although all applicants may be welcomed by the firm at entry levels, when it comes to powerful managerial and executive positions, there are limits, generally unstated, on the number of women and nonwhites welcomed or even tolerated. Women may be doing better at getting top management positions than minorities, but they still lag well behind men” (McNamee and Miller 2013:196).

Additional Information:

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McNamee, Stephen J., and Robert K. Miller. 2013. The Meritocracy Myth. 3rd. ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.