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Carol T. Kulik and Belinda Rae

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.