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Glass Ceiling Theory in Sociology: Definition, Barriers & Quiz

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Taught by

Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

This lesson defines the term 'glass ceiling' and gives examples of how this term is used within the corporate world. It also gives indications of when this term was first used in the United States.

What Is a Glass Ceiling?

The phrase glass ceiling refers to an invisible barrier that prevents someone from achieving further success. It is most often used in the context of someone's age, gender, or ethnicity keeping them from advancing to a certain point in a business or when he or she cannot or will not be promoted to a higher level of position/power. Glass ceilings are most often observed in the workplace and are usually a barrier to achieving power and success equal to that of a more dominant population. An example would be a woman who has better skills, talent, and education than her male peers, but is obviously being passed over for promotions.

Glass Ceiling

The glass ceiling metaphor in the business world is a reference to an employee's rise up the ranks of an organization. In theory, nothing prevents a woman from being promoted. However, in practice there are unseen barriers. Workers can see that the higher they are in the company, the more promotions, pay raises, and opportunities they should have. Instead of being able to achieve the same success as peers, those who encounter glass ceilings are stopped by invisible obstacles that prevent them from rising further.

Who Developed the Term Glass Ceiling?

It is unknown exactly who first used the term glass ceiling. However, this term was first printed in a 1984 book by Gay Bryant entitled The Working Woman Report, which examined the status of women in the workplace. A 1986 Wall Street Journal story popularized the term as well. This story also investigated the barriers women confronted at high levels of corporations. In 1991, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission was established to gather information and study opportunities for, and barriers to, the advancement of women and minorities. Today, the phrase is often used in the media. When women or minorities have made gains or achieved some success in the workplace, this progress sometimes referred to as cracking the glass ceiling.

Shattered Glass Ceiling

A Difficult Barrier to Shatter

In the 1960s, racism and sexism in the workplace were common, frequent, and accepted. For example, even the classified ads listings for men's jobs and women's jobs were separate. Although such behaviors seem old-fashioned, glass ceilings still exist. The frustrating thing about this kind of oppression is that it is overt and cannot be seen. Instead of being a tangible barrier that would be easy to identify, a glass ceiling in the workplace persists in very subtle ways. The good news is that there is progress being made. Women and minorities are making slow but progressive gains in shattering this intangible barrier to equality.

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