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date: 29 January 2023

The Glass Ceiling in Organizationsfree

The Glass Ceiling in Organizationsfree

  • Carol T. KulikCarol T. KulikCentre for Workplace Excellence, University of South Australia
  •  and Belinda RaeBelinda RaeCentre for Workplace Excellence, University of South Australia


The “glass ceiling” metaphor represents the frustration experienced by women in the 1980s and 1990s who entered the workforce in large numbers following equal opportunity legislation that gave them greater access to education and employment. After initial success in attaining lower management positions, the women found their career progress slowing as they reached higher levels of their organizations. A formal definition of the glass ceiling specifies that a female disadvantage in promotion should accelerate at the highest levels of the organization, and researchers adopting this formal definition have found mixed evidence for glass ceilings across organizations and across countries. Researchers who have expanded the glass ceiling definition to encompass racial minorities have similarly found mixed results. However, these mixed results do not detract from the metaphor’s value in highlighting the stereotype-based practices that embed discrimination deep within organizational structures and understanding why women continue to be underrepresented in senior organizational roles around the world. In particular, researchers investigating the glass ceiling have identified a variety of obstacles (including glass cliffs, glass walls, and glass doors) that create a more complete understanding of the barriers that women experience in their careers. As organizations offer shorter job ladders and less job security, the career patterns of both women and men are exhibiting more downward, lateral, and static movement. In this career context, the glass ceiling may no longer be the ideal metaphor to represent the obstacles that women are most likely to encounter.


  • Human Resource Management
  • Organization Theory
  • Organizational Behavior

Now I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday, someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.

Hillary Clinton, in her 2016 concession speech to Donald Trump1


The glass ceiling is a metaphor that describes the barriers that women experience as they advance through organizational hierarchies. The term may have been coined by Marilyn Loden, an American writer and management consultant, who is credited with using it at a 1978 Women’s Exposition. There are occasional references to the glass ceiling in publications appearing in the early 1980s (e.g., Bryant, 1984). But the term gained strong momentum in 1986, when columnists Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt used it in a Wall Street Journal special report (“The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can’t Seem to Break the Invisible Barrier that Blocks Them from the Top Job”) and “glass ceiling” became part of the social discourse around women’s advancement. A few years later, the U.S. Department of Labor conducted a review of nine randomly selected Fortune 500 companies and concluded that not only did all nine have glass ceilings, but the glass ceilings “existed at a much lower level than first thought” (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991, p. 13). The term gained further legitimacy when the United States enacted the Glass Ceiling Act in 1991, and by 1993, “glass ceiling” was a formal entry in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. The Glass Ceiling Act established a Commission charged with examining the opportunities of women and minorities to advance to management and decision-making positions (U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995). The Commission defined the glass ceiling as the “unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements” (U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995, p. 4).

The glass ceiling metaphor captured the zeitgeist of women working in American organizations during the 1980s and 1990s. Decades earlier, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had made discrimination on the basis of sex illegal, and Executive Order 11375 (1967) required federal employers to take affirmative action to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for men and women. This equal opportunity legislation dramatically increased women’s access to education and swelled their ranks in the American workforce. However, women were often frustrated with the slow pace of their careers (Devanna, 1987; Ragins, Townsend, & Mattis, 1998), and the metaphor aptly summarized both the inevitability (there is a “ceiling”) and the invisibility (the ceiling is “glass”) of the barriers that they experienced.

There is no sign that the metaphor’s popularity is abating. Today, a Google Scholar search using “glass ceiling” will generate more than 70,000 hits, surfacing articles, industry reports, blog posts, and websites (e.g., A global search within EBSCOhost’s research database returns more than 1000 results overall; a search constraining “glass ceiling” to the title or subject fields identifies almost 700 peer-reviewed academic articles published before 2019. Sector-specific versions of the glass ceiling have emerged in the popular press and academic literature such as the “brass ceiling” in the military (Iskra, 2008), the “celluloid ceiling” in the film industry (Lauzen, 2008), the “stained glass ceiling” in religious institutions (Sullins, 2000), and the “grass ceiling” in agriculture (Alston, 2000).

The U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission completed its mandate in January 1996 and no longer exists. However, the fundamental problem targeted by the Commission is still evident. Women are dramatically underrepresented in senior organizational roles in countries all around the world (Kulik & Metz, 2017) despite the introduction of legislation and reporting requirements designed to motivate organizations to reduce gender inequities (Metz & Kulik, 2014). In fact, industry reports suggest that women’s representation in some parts of the world (e.g., the United Kingdom [McDonagh & Fitzsimons, 2018] and the United States [McKinsey&Company & Lean In, 2018]) may even be on the decline. The following review of the glass ceiling research offers a timely opportunity to consider the relevance and value of the glass ceiling metaphor, the mechanisms that underlie glass ceilings in practice, and the implications of the metaphor for management researchers, policymakers, and career-oriented women who hope to dismantle real-world glass ceilings and make the glass ceiling metaphor obsolete.

Glass Ceiling Mechanisms

The emerging popularity of the glass ceiling metaphor coincided with a transition in the academic literature away from “person-centered” explanations that attributed a shortage of women in leadership roles to shortcomings in their human capital (e.g., a lack of education or work experience) toward “situation-centered” explanations that attributed the shortage to decision-maker attitudes and organizational structures (Riger & Galligan, 1980). For decades, researchers and policymakers anticipated that gender diversity in leadership roles would be achieved with the passage of time, as women acquired more education and worked their way up corporate ladders. Unfortunately, although women invest more time and energy in developing human capital than their male peers (Ward, Orazem, & Schmidt, 1992), they experience fewer benefits as a result. Education contributes less to the managerial advancement of women than of men (e.g., Simpson, 1996; Tharenou & Conroy, 1994) and the number of years of work experience and company tenure have stronger effects on men’s position level than on women’s (Kirchmeyer, 1998; Roth, 2007). Women have the equivalent of up to one and a half year’s extra education, and nearly a full year’s extra workforce experience, than what is required for their job (Risse, 2018). If women’s qualifications and achievements are not constraining their opportunities for advancement (U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995), the glass ceiling must originate from discriminatory factors located within the organization and its decision-makers (Cotter, Hermsen, Ovadia, & Vanneman, 2001).

Situation-centered explanations for the glass ceiling emphasize gender stereotypes held by organizational decision-makers that generate discrimination against women. Common gender stereotypes present women as communal and cooperative and present men as assertive and independent (Heilman & Caleo, 2018). Those male stereotypes align more closely with stereotypes of managers (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Schein, Mueller, Lituchy, & Liu, 1996), so that men appear to be a better fit for leadership roles than women (Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell, & Ristikari, 2011). Stereotypes can generate overt expressions of gender bias (visible in decision-maker preferences to hire and promote men over women). Stereotypes can also become embedded in organizational structures that disadvantage women (“second generation” biases; Ibarra, Ely, & Kolb, 2013). For example, embedded gender stereotypes may result in women being steered toward female-dominated occupations (Ibarra et al., 2013) and beliefs that men are more suited to managerial roles may generate inflexible time demands that do not accommodate family responsibilities (Stone & Hernandez, 2013). The jobs held by women tend to have more limited opportunities for promotion or mobility (Baron, Davis-Blake, & Bielby, 1986), so organizational structures simultaneously embody and perpetuate gender stereotypes that women are unsuited for leadership roles. Women are more likely than men to receive vague feedback with fewer recommendations for skill development (Correll & Simard, 2016), so it is difficult for individual women to overcome gender stereotypes held by organizational decision-makers. The insidious effects of stereotypes can go undetected in organizational contexts because stereotypes operate without conscious awareness (Roth, 2004) and become embedded in performance criteria. Ostensibly “merit-based” policies (e.g., policies that make employees’ organizational rewards contingent on managers’ performance ratings) simultaneously make it less likely that managers will monitor their own biases and more difficult for employees to recognize bias when it occurs (Castilla, 2008; Castilla & Benard, 2010).

The glass ceiling metaphor describes the experience of women who become managers but seem unable to achieve senior and executive positions (Bruckmüller, Ryan, Haslam, & Peters, 2014), suggesting that gender inequities in promotion decisions should be most pronounced at the highest organizational levels (Cotter et al., 2001; Fernandez & Campero, 2017). If stereotypes are the driving mechanism, stereotypes must be more influential at higher levels of the organizational hierarchy than at lower levels, so that decision-makers become less and less likely to hire women into leadership roles (Gorman & Kmec, 2009). The effect of stereotypes intensifies because the requirements of upper-level management jobs (e.g., strategic decision-making, delegating, and resource allocation) are perceived as even more masculine than the requirements for management jobs at lower levels (Lyness & Heilman, 2006; Lyness & Terrazas, 2006). Further, selection criteria become more abstract, and performance evaluations more subjective, at higher organizational levels. These conditions encourage decision-makers to rely more heavily on heuristics, including gender stereotypes (Heilman, 2001). And because women are rarely observed in these roles, the decision-maker’s perception of a lack of fit is confirmed, reinforcing the original stereotype (Heilman & Caleo, 2018).

Importantly, because the glass ceiling results from a misalignment between a decision-maker’s gender stereotypes and managerial role expectations, the glass ceiling describes asymmetric effects: women are subject to a glass ceiling, but men are not. The psychological association between “male” and “leadership” is so strong that men are pulled into leadership positions, regardless of industry or occupational content. In fact, men who work in female-dominated professions (e.g., nursing, education, social work, ballet) can sometimes experience a glass elevator (Williams, 1992, 2013) rather than a glass ceiling. Even in these female-typed fields, men are favored in the hiring process and encouraged to pursue the most masculine jobs, which are also the jobs with the highest pay and authority.

Evidence for Glass Ceilings (and Sticky Floors)

What is a glass ceiling, exactly? What distinguishes a glass ceiling from other types of gender discrimination? There is widespread evidence that women are disadvantaged in leadership roles (Kulik & Metz, 2017) and other organizational outcomes, including pay (Kulik & Olekalns, 2012). A “loose” definition of the glass ceiling could, therefore, encompass virtually the entire women-in-management literature (Calás & Smircich, 1999). A stricter definition specifies first that a female disadvantage is experienced in promotions, and second that the disadvantage should accelerate at the highest levels of the organization. However, only a handful of empirical studies have applied this strict two-part definition to their glass ceiling investigations.

Gorman and Kmec (2009) investigated promotions in corporate law firms—organizations with well-defined career ladders. Within these firms, women’s and men’s entry-level hiring rates were approximately equal, but the propensity to select women declined between entry-level hiring and partner promotion, providing evidence of a glass ceiling. However, other researchers have failed to find consistent evidence of glass ceilings under the strict definition. Zeng’s (2011) investigation of a sample of scientists and engineers suggested that while women were underrepresented at the most senior levels, it was because women were more likely to opt down to jobs with fewer responsibilities or to opt out of the organization altogether. Baxter and Wright (2000) used data from the United States, Australia, and Sweden, and in all three countries they found a general gender gap in authority roles: the odds of a woman occupying a supervisory or managerial role were significantly less than those of a man. However, none of the countries displayed a glass ceiling pattern. In the U.S. data, once women were in the authority structure, their future promotion possibilities did not significantly differ from those of men. In the other two countries, the largest gender differential was observed at middle levels of the authority structure rather than at the top. When Yap and Konrad (2009) examined promotion rates within a single large Canadian firm, they found that women experienced the greatest disadvantage in promotion at the lower rungs of the organizational hierarchy—a sticky floor phenomenon rather than a glass ceiling.

Some researchers have argued that the glass ceiling concept should be applicable to any career outcome (Cotter et al., 2001), and so there is a parallel stream of research investigating glass ceiling effects on wages. There is a large body of evidence documenting an across-the-board gender gap in wages (Joshi, Son, & Roh, 2015) along with notable exceptions (e.g., high-potential women with “diversity value” command a pay premium in some fields; Leslie, Manchester, & Dahm, 2017). The glass ceiling concept, however, presents a more specific prediction: the size of the gender pay gap should systematically vary across levels of the wage distribution. This research stream relies on national data sets, examining wages across both organizations and occupations. And, like the glass ceiling research on advancement, the findings have been mixed. Examining data from 11 European countries, Arulampalam, Booth, and Bryan (2007) found a consistent gender pay gap at higher levels of the wage distribution (evidence of a glass ceiling) but in some countries the gap also widened at the bottom (a sticky floor effect). Albrecht, Björklund, and Vroman (2003, p. 145) concluded that there was a “strong” glass ceiling in Sweden because the gender pay gap accelerated sharply at the upper tail of the wage distribution. Cotter et al. (2001) found evidence of a glass ceiling in the United States: women consistently earned less than men with equivalent levels of work experience, and at high earnings levels, women’s annual changes in earnings were smaller than men’s. In contrast, also using a U.S. data set, Smith (2012) found that while there was wage inequality between men and women at each level of authority, wage inequalities increased with movement up the authority hierarchy only in nontraditional settings where employees reported to minority and female supervisors.

Most glass ceiling researchers have studied promotions or wages, but gender can influence these outcomes in different ways even in the same context. For example, Booth, Francesconi, and Frank (2003) used a national British data set to demonstrate that even when women are promoted at the same rate as men, they experience a sticky floor in wages (they are stuck at the lowest pay rate for their new position). However, Blau and DeVaro (2007) found the opposite pattern in the United States: in their data, women were promoted less frequently than men but the wage increases associated with promotions were roughly comparable for the two sexes.

Implications and Debates

In some respects, it is not surprising to learn that the glass ceiling does not operate across all organizations or in all countries. Organizational decisions should reflect gender stereotypes only when the organizational context both (a) activates decision-maker stereotypes and (b) permits decision-makers to act on those stereotypes (Perry, Davis-Blake, & Kulik, 1994). These conditions are more likely to be found in organizations with formal job ladders, such as the corporate law firms studied by Gorman and Kmec (2009). Job ladders tend to be divided by gender, and any gender segregation in entry-level positions strengthens as employees move up their specific ladder with no opportunity to cross into other lines of advancement (Stamarski & Son Hing, 2015). Glass ceilings should be less likely to develop in organizations that offer more fluid career opportunities to employees (Perry et al., 1994), or that monitor the gender consequences of managerial decisions (Kalev, Dobbin, & Kelly, 2006).

Adding to the contextual complexity, countries vary in their general (e.g., collective bargaining and minimum wages) and gender-specific (e.g., equal opportunity laws, parental leave provisions) policies, and these variations can affect the points in the organizational hierarchy where women are most disadvantaged (Arulampalam et al., 2007). For example, Albrecht et al. (2003) explain that the wage-related glass ceiling they observed in Sweden could be a side effect of national policy. A high minimum wage might make child care prohibitively expensive, motivating even career-oriented women to opt out of demanding roles. This in turn could generate a pattern in which women’s wages are consistent with men’s at the bottom and middle of the wage distribution but fall behind at higher levels.

In theory, at least, an organization without a glass ceiling could be doing something right. In practice, however, researchers who fail to find evidence of a glass ceiling usually find evidence of gender-based disadvantage at other organizational levels (e.g., Baxter & Wright, 2000; Yap & Konrad, 2009). The lack of evidence for a gender-based disadvantage that accelerates across organizational levels has led some researchers to characterize the glass ceiling as a myth (Cotter et al., 2001; Zeng, 2011), but motivated other researchers to advocate for a looser definition of a glass ceiling. For example, Ferree and Purkayastha (2000) note that defining the glass ceiling as an acceleration of disadvantages assumes that organizational levels (and the promotion decisions made across those levels) are independent of one another. But for promotion candidates, being promoted from one level to the next is always dependent on the previous promotion, so “from the candidate’s perspective, the odds are cumulative” (Ferree & Purkayastha, 2000).

Defining the glass ceiling as a barrier operating at upper levels of the organizational hierarchy suggests that interventions intended to dismantle the glass ceiling must target the same levels. Both sticky floors and glass ceilings place the blame on gender stereotypes, but point to different groups of decision-makers who endorse those stereotypes. Sticky floors are attributable to front-line supervisors and lower-level managers who block women from access to managerial career ladders; glass ceilings are attributable to upper-level executives who prevent women from moving upward from middle management roles. Sticky floors could be addressed by affirmative action programs to ensure representation into entry-level managerial roles; glass ceilings might require quotas that specify minimum numbers of women on executive teams and boards of directors (Kulik & Metz, 2017).

What about Racial Minorities?

When Hymowitz and Schellhardt (1986) used the glass ceiling metaphor, they referred specifically and exclusively to women. However, when the U.S. Department of Labor adopted the term for their 1991 review, they included racial minorities to better align with their mandate of ensuring that businesses with federal government contracts did not discriminate on a range of personal characteristics, including both sex and race. Conceptually, scholars have questioned whether the metaphor accurately describes the experience of racial minorities, especially women of color. Davidson (1997) presented an alternative concrete ceiling to emphasize that, for racial minorities, the metaphorical ceiling was impossible to break and offered no line-of-sight to the next level.

Empirically, Powell and Butterfield (1997) were among the first to investigate race effects in promotions. They found that racial minorities were not directly disadvantaged in hiring decisions for top management roles in a federal government department with standardized promotion practices. However, minority candidates had fewer years of work experience and were less likely to be already employed in the hiring department, and these job-related attributes reduced their chances of being hired into top management.

Overall, the research evidence suggests that while racial minorities experience considerable disadvantages in employment, the disadvantages do not display the characteristic pattern of a glass ceiling (accelerating inequities as one moves up the hierarchy). For example, Jackson and O’Callaghan (2011) found that racial minorities were disadvantaged at entry-level hiring, but racial minorities with the appropriate social capital, human capital, and ability were as successful—and members of some minority groups were more successful—than whites in achieving senior-level positions in the academic workforce. When Yap and Konrad (2009) examined promotion rates in a large Canadian firm, they found that only minority men experienced a glass ceiling (a promotion disadvantage at the highest level of the organization); white women and women of color experienced sticky floors (promotion disadvantages at the lower levels). Zeng (2011) concluded that racial minorities within a sample of scientists and engineers did not experience a glass ceiling, because their underrepresentation at high authority levels was due to exit rather than plateauing. Smith (2012) found no evidence that race-related wage inequalities increased with movement up the authority hierarchy—except in nontraditional settings where employees reported to minority and female supervisors. Cotter et al. (2001, p. 655) concluded that the glass ceiling was a “distinctively gender phenomenon” because, while African American men consistently earned less than white men, the gap was not larger at high earnings levels than at low earning levels.

Metaphor Expansion: Glass Cliffs and Glass Walls

As researchers have investigated glass ceilings, they have surfaced—and labeled—other forms of gender inequity. The expanding typology of inequities is useful in suggesting further targeted interventions that might increase the representation of women in leadership roles. As Cotter et al. (2001, p. 656) point out, the glass ceiling is not “more unjust or larger than other types of inequality . . . nor . . . more deserving of policy interventions.”

For example, research on glass cliffs (e.g., Cook & Glass, 2014a; Ryan & Haslam, 2007) demonstrates that women (and racial minorities; Cook & Glass, 2014b) are more likely to be promoted to leadership positions in organizations that are in a state of crisis or are financially precarious. As a result, these leadership positions themselves carry a greater risk of failure, and the women occupying them are singled out for criticism and blame (Ryan & Haslam, 2007). In the long run, glass cliffs can perpetuate glass ceilings because, once decision-makers see an association between female leaders and organizational failure, they will be more reluctant to appoint women to leadership roles in the future. Researchers have also used the metaphor of glass walls to explain how horizontal sex segregation within managerial ranks limits women’s ability to reach the top of organizations (Lyness & Terrazas, 2006). Within the same managerial level, women are concentrated in staff functions such as human resources, corporate communications, and public relations; male managers are concentrated in line functions such as operations, sales, and research and development (International Labour Organization, 2015). This creates a double bind for women. Staff functions offer limited opportunities for advancement, and so women in these roles are less likely than male managers to attain top management positions. Therefore, women are frequently advised to seek line positions in order to advance their careers. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned advice is likely to backfire: women in line management positions are evaluated more negatively than other managers and subjected to more stringent criteria than men when promotion decisions are made (Lyness & Heilman, 2006).

The Shortcomings of a Metaphor

The glass ceiling metaphor motivated researchers to document its existence, and documenting inequity is a first step toward overcoming it. But the metaphor may have artificially constrained researchers’ thinking about gender inequity, and it may have had some unintended consequences for women in organizations.

First, the metaphor of a glass “ceiling” may have focused research attention too narrowly on internal movement up the organization hierarchy. Aligning with the glass ceiling definition, most research on the glass ceiling has focused on internal promotion processes, and the gender disadvantage is attributed to stereotypes held by internal managers who make promotion decisions. However, Fernandez and Campero (2017) demonstrated that the glass ceiling is also impacted by firms’ external recruitment processes and the human resource managers who interface with recruitment firms. Many executive jobs are filled by external hires, and firms that do not actively seek more gender-equitable candidate pools for jobs display more evidence of glass ceilings. Hassink and Russo (2010) described this process as a glass door, in which women are less likely than men to be hired into upper levels from the external labor market. These glass door effects suggest that interventions to increase women’s representation in senior roles need to explicitly target the gatekeepers who hire recruitment agencies.

Second, regardless of who holds the problematic stereotypes (line-of-sight managers or outward-facing organizational gatekeepers), the glass ceiling metaphor leads to a narrow set of intervention strategies. If stereotypes are the problem, the recommended solution is usually some kind of bias reduction training or unconscious bias training. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that this kind of training has a direct effect on women’s representation in senior management roles (Kalev et al., 2006) and it may even inadvertently normalize decision-makers’ stereotype use (Duguid & Thomas-Hunt, 2015). Further, training focuses on changing people rather than changing the organizational structures in which they work. Training activities may distract organizations from considering other interventions that may have a more direct and immediate effect, such as adopting policies that demand more gender diversity on recruitment shortlists (Johnson, Hekman, & Chan, 2016), establishing explicit gender quotas at senior management levels (Dezső, Ross, & Uribe, 2016), and using board-level gender diversity to initiate trickle-down effects on senior management diversity (Gould, Kulik, & Sardeshmukh, 2018). These organizational interventions increase the representation of women at senior levels, but the embedded gender stereotypes that impede women’s progress can only be fully dismantled when organizational leadership training highlights the effects of gender in day-to-day work experiences (Ely, Ibarra, & Kolb, 2011) and organizations systematically modify the way they design, evaluate, and reward work so that women are not disadvantaged (Correll & Simard, 2016; Ely & Meyerson, 2001). Organization-level strategies may be particularly important for women of color: intersecting stereotypes of gender and race marginalize women of color and constrain the effectiveness of individual-level strategies for advancement (Bell & Nkomo, 2001; Holder, Jackson, & Ponterotto, 2015).

Third, the “glass” part of the metaphor suggests that the barrier can be broken or shattered. But what does it mean to “break” a glass ceiling? Is a glass ceiling broken by a single woman who achieves a high level in an organization? Intuitively, a “broken” glass ceiling suggests more opportunities for women who follow; the trailblazing female manager should disconfirm decision-maker stereotypes and act as a role model for women at lower organizational levels. However, single exceptions rarely dislodge embedded stereotypes (Heilman, 2001) and trailblazers are not always motivated to act as gender change agents (Derks, Van Laar, & Ellemers, 2016).

Further, provocative research by Dezső et al. (2016) suggests that the first female appointment to a senior management group may ironically strengthen the glass ceiling behind her. Organizations derive major value from taking the first step toward gender diversity in senior management. A female senior manager is symbolic of successful organizational gender equity policies; she can act as a representative to external stakeholders and generate reputational benefits for the organization. But, given the low representation of women in senior management, just one female appointment is likely to position an organization ahead of its peer firms. As a result, stakeholder pressures motivate firms to achieve and maintain a low target number of women in top management (usually a single woman), but the marginal reputational value of additional female appointments declines with each woman. There may also be internal reputational effects that result from these short-lived “cracks” in the glass ceiling. Isolated but highly celebrated female appointments can make women overly optimistic about their organization’s gender equity progress (Schmitt, Spoor, Danaher, & Branscombe, 2009), lead them to dismiss evidence of systemic discrimination as isolated cases (Spoor & Schmitt, 2011), and undermine opportunities for collective action that might produce real organizational change in gender equity (Bruckmüller et al., 2014).

Fourth, the glass ceiling metaphor may ironically discourage and demotivate women from pursuing their career ambitions. The glass ceiling metaphor may inadvertently signal to women that they are the ones that need to change—not the organization; it is the woman’s responsibility to break through the glass ceiling, not the organization’s responsibility to remove it (Bruckmüller et al., 2014). These signals are strengthened when the organization invests in interventions such as women-focused mentoring and leadership training without changing the organizations in which women work (Bruckmüller et al., 2014). In the short term, these initiatives may inspire women to try harder to break through, absolving the organization of the responsibility of removing the barriers to women’s advancement. It is unusual (but highly desirable) for women-focused leadership training to simultaneously help women to develop effective leadership styles and motivate women to change their organizations from within (Ely et al., 2011).

Over time, women may internalize the metaphor and begin to believe that they are unsuited for management-level positions. Elacqua, Beehre, Hansen, and Webster (2009) note that women who perceive a glass ceiling in their organizations face a very limited menu of choices. One option is that the women accept the glass ceiling and lower their ambitions for advancement. In a study investigating MBA students’ job applications, Barbulescu and Bidwell (2013) found that women were less likely than men to apply to jobs that were strongly male-typed (finance and consulting); these gender-based differences in applying were the result of women having lower expectations of successful offers in these male-typed areas. Parallel processes may operate inside organizations, where women internalize glass ceiling expectations, making them less likely to apply for promotions or for the developmental opportunities that might prepare them for promotions. If enough women opt out, or opt down, before reaching senior management levels, their organizations will not display the accelerating gender gap in promotions that defines a glass ceiling (Zeng, 2011). But the absence of a glass ceiling does not necessarily equate to gender equity; it may instead characterize an organization in which women experience enough gender inequity at lower levels that they withdraw before they can encounter an anticipated glass ceiling.

The other option available to women who perceive a glass ceiling in their own organizations is that they can try to further their career by changing organizations (Stroh, Brett, & Reilly, 1996). Unfortunately, women who do secure senior-level roles by changing organizations are likely to do so in less desirable organizations—organizations with higher turnover and lower average management salaries (Goodman, Fields, & Blum, 2003) or organizations in precarious financial situations (Ryan & Haslam, 2007).

Finally, the glass ceiling metaphor may no longer be relevant to today’s career patterns—especially to women’s career patterns. The glass ceiling metaphor became established in the popular press and the academic literature at a time when employees still anticipated long-term careers within a single organization, or careers that crossed organizations but still followed a traditional path within a single occupation. Today, work organizations are very different (Williams, 2013): organizational structures are flatter and less hierarchical. Employees are more likely to work in self-managed teams with fewer formal managers and more team leaders. Scholars increasingly view the traditional career model as “anachronistic” (Williams, 2013, p. 619), describing modern careers as protean (Hall, 2004) and boundaryless (Arthur, 1994). Traditional career ladders are being replaced by career maps and idiosyncratic deals (Rousseau, 2001).

In many ways, these “new” career models align with the process by which women’s careers have always unfolded. O’Neil, Hopkins, and Bilimoria (2008) note that while organizations have historically defined and rewarded upward mobility paths, women’s careers have always been more likely to zigzag and include more episodes of downward, lateral, or static movement. On the one hand, boundaryless careers could level the playing field between men and women, as both genders are now subject to shorter job ladders and lower job security (Ackah & Heaton, 2004). On the other hand, boundaryless careers burden women with more risk of precarious work (Inkson, Gunz, Ganesh, & Roper, 2012) and more responsibility for negotiating individualized employment terms (Kulik & Olekalns, 2012). Either way, as these career patterns become the new normal, the glass ceiling may become a less useful metaphor, and it may be more difficult to define and measure gender inequities in career outcomes.

Eagly and Carli (2007) have recommended a labyrinth as an alternative metaphor, explaining that women experience a range of barriers, twists, turns, detours, and dead ends in their careers. The labyrinth is created by gender stereotypes and prejudice, but Eagly and Carli (2007) also emphasize other factors, such as men and women’s differential access to social resources and their differential burdens associated with family responsibilities. Rather than a single barrier operating at upper management, the labyrinth is meant to capture the multiple difficulties women experience in their careers relative to men.


This review of the glass ceiling literature highlights both the value and the limitations of the metaphor. Understood within its historical context, the glass ceiling metaphor created a powerful vocabulary for women who, after promising starts, found their career progress slowing as they reached higher levels of their organization. The metaphor directed researchers’ and policymakers’ attention to the second-generation biases that embed discriminatory practices within organizations and perpetuate gender stereotypes that women are unsuited for leadership roles. Most importantly, the metaphor shifted causal explanations for women’s underrepresentation away from the women themselves (e.g., a lack of experience or education) and catalyzed activity in the academic and political spheres that, for the first time, identified organizations as the source of the underrepresentation problem. Once decision-maker biases and discriminatory organizational practices were explicitly acknowledged as causal factors, researchers were able to recommend strategies and interventions to address those causes (e.g., unconscious bias training, gender-diverse shortlists, or gender quotas).

However, we cannot view the glass ceiling metaphor as capturing the full spectrum of gender discrimination. Like any metaphor, the glass ceiling highlights some situational characteristics and downplays others. The glass ceiling metaphor shines a spotlight on how gender stereotypes limit women’s access to senior roles, but the same second-generation biases that create glass ceilings constrain women’s careers in other ways, creating sticky floors, glass cliffs, glass walls, and glass doors. Organizations that increase women’s representation at senior levels by focusing on women’s developmental opportunities without dismantling organizational barriers may, in the long run, reinforce the glass ceilings that they hope to break. The women who reach senior levels in these organizations may be viewed as rare exceptions that “prove the rule”; losing faith in their own ability to reach the top, women at lower levels of the organization will choose to opt out or opt down. Therefore, it is important that all stakeholders—researchers, policymakers, and women themselves—understand that the glass ceiling describes only one particular type of gender discrimination. Recognizing that gender discrimination is systemic and can manifest in many ways within organizations is likely to provide a more accurate view of the problem and generate a wider portfolio of solutions.


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