The metaphor comments on an employee’s rise up the ranks of a hierarchical organization. Workers climb higher as they get promotions, pay raises, and other opportunities. In theory, nothing prevents women from rising as high as men. After the Women’s Liberation Movement and Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, many people feel that discrimination is all in the past. However, in practice, there are still barriers.
A ceiling made of glass would be see-through. A woman can clearly see those above her who are more powerful. Instead of being able to achieve the same success, she is stopped by invisible forces that prevent her from rising further.
What Are the Invisible Forces?
Although the Women’s Liberation Movement opened many doors, some women remain frustrated that they are the ones required to make sacrifices in order to balance family life with a career. Why, feminists ask, are men assumed to be able to have both family and career?
Even as more women entered the workforce during the 1960s and 1970s, feminists noted that traditionally male jobs were slow to open to women. Other practical glass ceiling matters include unequal pay rates and the idea that women lose out on involvement in an organization if they take maternity leave. Again, there is a contrast with men, who may or may not take time off for the birth of a child, and do not need to physically recover from the birth of their children.
Who Said “Glass Ceiling”?
It is unknown who first used the term glass ceiling. A widely read Wall Street Journal story in 1986 popularized the term. The story looked at barriers confronting women at high levels of corporate power. Glass ceiling was used even earlier by Gay Bryant in the 1984 book The Working Woman Report, which examined the status of women in the work place.
In 1991, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission was established to gather information and study opportunities for and barriers to advancement for women and minorities.
The phrase is often used in the media. When women or minorities have made gains or achieved some success in the workplace, they sometimes refer to “cracks in the glass ceiling."
A Hard Barrier to Shatter
In the 1960s, overt sexism in the workplace was commonplace and frequently accepted. There were separate classified ads listings for men’s jobs and women’s jobs. Feminists recall letters of recommendation that commented on their looks. Although such behaviors seem long gone, a frustrating thing about the glass ceiling is that it is not overt. Instead of being a tangible barrier, which might be easier to identify, sexism in the glass ceiling workplace persists in more subtle ways.