Glass Ceiling

Glass ceiling is a term used to refer to the alleged limits of advancement that minorities, including women, experience in the U.S. workplace. It has been observed that the highest-ranking positions in organizations are dominated by heterosexual white men. This observation has led to the theory that minorities within organizations have a limited level to which they can advance. That ceiling for advancement is said to be transparent, or obviously biased, unlike other ceilings, which require various degrees of experience or education. Hence the term glass ceiling has been used to describe this phenomenon.


I. Does the Glass Ceiling Exist?

II. Groups Affected by the Glass Ceiling

A. Women

B. Ethnic and Racial Minorities

III. Organizational-Level Barriers

IV. Conclusion

Does the Glass Ceiling Exist?

The term glass ceiling was first used by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt in the March 24, 1986, edition of the Wall Street Journal to describe the limits of advancement that women face in the workplace (Hymowitz and Schellhardt 1986). When originally used, the term drew widespread criticism because it claimed that women did not achieve high levels of advancement in the workforce because they were consumed by family life or did not obtain the required levels of education and/or experience. Since then, the term and the arguments surrounding it have developed to encompass all minorities in the workplace.

According to a great deal of research, the glass ceiling is a very real characteristic of the U.S. corporate atmosphere. A 1995 study by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission found that 97 percent of the senior managers of the Fortune 1000 Industrial and Fortune 500 were white, and 95–97 percent were men. This is not demographically representative, considering that 57 percent of the workforce consists of ethnic minorities, women, or both. In 1990, Jaclyn Fierman (1990) found that less than 0.5 percent of the 4,012 highest-paid managers in top companies in the United States were women, while fewer than 5 percent of senior management in the Fortune 500 corporations were minorities. More recent figures show that gains have been made in some areas—for example, among Fortune 500 company boards of directors, women now make up 15 percent of the total (Catalyst 2008)—but clearly there is room for improvement. The conclusion reached from studies such as these is that there are invisible barriers that exclude women and ethnic minorities from upper management positions.

Despite evidence to the contrary, many argue that the glass ceiling concept does not exist. Those who argue that the glass ceiling does not exist focus mainly on the status of women and argue that the glass ceiling ignores pertinent evidence that disproves the theory and that it is an unrealistic conspiracy theory that simply reflects women’s chosen positions in U.S. society.

One of the forms of evidence that glass ceiling detractors claim is ignored is the education of high-ranking executives. They argue that these executives are more qualified because they have achieved a higher level of education than most women. They argue that women are not well represented in upper-level management because of a lack of women receiving master of business administration (MBA) degrees.

Those who argue against the existence of the glass ceiling also argue that women are not represented in upper-level management because women do not aspire to such positions, partially because of the characteristics of U.S. society. It is argued that men work better in teams and under a chain of command than women, who take less dangerous jobs, are not willing to work long hours like men, and wish to have more maternal positions, such as nurse, child care provider, or secretary. Of course, the issue of childbirth and maternal instincts are also factors that many claim prevent women from holding high-level positions. Glass ceiling detractors often take as fact that women cannot be highly successful and raise children. Surprisingly, a great number of these types of arguments are being made by women with experience in the business world who do not see themselves as victims. Instead, they deny their advancement potential by claiming that they have decided to make another choice.

Those who argue against the glass ceiling in terms of how it affects ethnic minorities use similar arguments and often expand them to include stereotypes, the most common being that African Americans and Latinos are not self-directed or would rather perform labor-centered tasks. Other reasons used include a lack of education, inability to understand the English language or Western society, and a desire to hold certain types of positions (e.g., linking Asian Americans to computer and science jobs).

The argument against the existence of the glass ceiling is compelling; however, the enormous disparities between the minority and majority when it comes to senior management positions make the analysis of this issue necessary, whether the concept is seen as bona fi de or not.

Groups Affected by the Glass Ceiling


For most of the 20th century, the levels of education achieved by men and women were disproportionate. However, recent decades have seen the end of unequal access to education in terms of gender. In 2008, 49 percent of the Yale undergraduate class was female, the entering class of the University of California, Berkeley’s law school was 55 percent female, and Columbia University’s law school (in toto) was 48 percent female. Over 50 percent of medical school applicants are now women, as are half of undergraduate business majors. So how has the discrepancy between men and women in high-ranking positions evolved?

One major and incontrovertible difference between men and women is that women give birth and men do not. This leads to one of the most common reasons given for the existence of a glass ceiling. Many argue that women simply choose other paths than their careers. One example comes from business. A Harvard Business School survey found that only 38 percent of women from the MBA classes of 1981, 1985, and 1991 were working full-time. Of white men with MBAs, 95 percent are working full-time, while only 67 percent of white women with MBAs have full-time positions (McNutt 2002).

Many women are discriminated against in the workplace. Often, when a woman is hired, she is hired under the assumption that she will leave her job or not work as hard when she gets married or has children. This type of attitude places women in the types of jobs that can be seen as temporary. Women may be working on small projects instead of being heavily involved with the infrastructure of a corporation. This type of job discrimination may go so far as to place women with college degrees as administrative assistants or secretaries. It is with this type of discrimination that many women’s careers begin. Perhaps one of the reasons that women opt out of the workplace to raise children is because of the pressure and stress that come along with being a woman in the business world.

In addition, many of the same factors that affect ethnic and racial minorities also affect women. The next section addresses these issues specifically.

Ethnic and Racial Minorities

The barriers that ethnic and racial minority managers encounter are common to the experience of other minorities. These barriers operate at the individual and organizational levels. They range from overt racial harassment experienced in the workplace to specific segregation practices. These barriers are believed to be responsible for the lack of ethnic minority senior executives in large organizations.

Bell and Nkomo (2003) have identified three major individual barriers that ethnic minorities experience: (1) subtle racism and prejudice, (2) managing duality and bicultural stress, and (3) tokenism and presumed incompetence.

This subtle form of racism and prejudice does not resemble the outright hostility that U.S. culture has rejected since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s but instead takes the form of what Essed (1991) has termed everyday racism. This includes acts of marginalization, which refers to the exclusion of African American managers from mainstream organizational life, thus maintaining their outsider status, and problematization, which includes the use of stereotypes to justify the exclusion of African American managers without seeming to be prejudiced or racist.

Another important form of an individual barrier includes racial harassment. Racial harassment occurs when an individual or group of employees is continually subjected to racial slurs, jokes, pranks, insults, and verbal or even physical abuse because of their race. Obviously, threats of violence and abuse are detrimental to any working environment, but racial harassment takes many forms and is often precipitated by fellow employees who are unaware of the harassment they inflict. Racial jokes are a good example of unconscious racial harassment. Another example would include a negative reaction to a news event involving a minority that reflects negatively on that minority’s race or ethnicity.

The second level of individual barriers is referred to as bicultural stress. As Bell and Nkomo (2003) noted, in the organizational world, there is little tolerance or appreciation for cultural diversity in terms of behavioral styles, dress, or alternative aesthetics. Bell and Nkomo pointed out that most business environments rely on norms from mostly white Western society that may conflict with other dimensions of these minority managers’ normal lives or backgrounds. If the manager is from a non-Western country, this conflict can only increase. The challenge of balancing these contrasting aspects of life often creates stress and tension between the workplace and one’s private life. This tension becomes a barrier when ethnic minorities feel compelled to suppress one part of their identity to succeed in one or both of the cultural dimensions in which they exist.

The third level of individual barriers is tokenism. Tokenism is the process of hiring a token number of individuals from an underrepresented minority group to comply with government or organizational affirmative action policies. The people who are token hires are often viewed as representative of their entire race rather than as individuals. Their performance on the job and their personal lives are carefully examined and taken out of context. Because of these stereotypes and general animosity toward affirmative action policies, many other employees believe that these tokens received their jobs not because of individual merit but because of their minority status.

The psychological effects of being treated as a token negatively affect job performance. To overcome the stereotypes associated with each ethnic or racial group, the minority employees often feel that they have to perform at a higher level than other employees just to maintain equal status. They also have to spend a disproportionate amount of time validating their existence in the workplace. They are often aware that because they are perceived to represent their entire race, performing poorly will negatively contribute to the negative stereotypes attributed to their ethnic minority.

Entering a work environment is different for ethnic minorities than it is for white men and women. There are often a multitude of factors that must be juggled just to achieve equal status to that of white employees. The disadvantages that ethnic minorities experience in the workplace are prevalent from the first day on the job, and maybe even before.

Organizational-Level Barriers

Bell and Nkomo (2003) pointed out various organizational-level barriers that exist for ethnic minorities in the workplace. These include (1) lack of mentorship, (2) unfair promotion and evaluation processes, and (3) segregation into staff -type jobs.

Mentors are important in any large business environment. A mentor helps to increase self-confi dence, motivation, career skills, career enhancement, career planning, networking opportunities, and, perhaps most importantly, mentors reduce isolation. Mentors are most likely to have mentees who have similar backgrounds. This is perfectly understandable because people tend to sympathize with and coach those in similar situations or from similar backgrounds as themselves. A problem is that mentors may pass over a potential protege who belongs to an ethnic minority group because of racial stereotypes that may make the mentor see the minority as a risky protege.

Many employees from ethnic minority groups find it difficult to find mentorship. Friedman and Carter (1993) found that 53 percent of National Black MBA Association members felt that they did not have the support of a mentor. Without equal access to mentors, ethnic minorities are without one of the most important aspects of successful career advancement. It limits their networking opportunities, exposure within the company, and potential supporters. It also denies them the important basic advantages that a mentor provides as far as career planning and the transition into a new organization.

Over the past 20 years, numerous studies have been done that show that white supervisors rank managers from ethnic minority groups below white managers in their evaluations (Bell and Nkomo 2003). They rank them lower in terms of job performance and how they interact with other employees. Part of this is because of racial stereotypes. If supervisors consider ethnic minority managers to be doing a fine job, then their performance is attributed to the support structure they have around them that makes their job easier. For whites, top performance is attributed to effort and competence. As negative feedback builds, it has a snowball effect on African American managers as they lose their confidence and begin to question their own abilities. Low performance ratings have negative effects on an individual’s long-term career prospects and self-prescribed potential for advancement within the organization.

There are clear trends in the career paths of the vast majority of CEOs of large organizations. The critical career paths have historically been through marketing, finance, and operations. The people who head companies are often funneled through these departments. Collins (1989) has pointed out that African Americans have been relegated to racialized jobs outside of those departments that produce the most upper-level managers. She suggested that African Americans are often placed in jobs dealing with public relations, community relations, affirmative action, and equal employment opportunity. Among 76 of the highest-ranking African American managers, she found that 66 percent held jobs that dealt with affirmative action or consumer issues. Because of the types of jobs that African American employees are often relegated to, it becomes more difficult for them to advance up the corporate ladder because they do not get experience in the most important functions.


The glass ceiling concept for women and ethnic and racial minorities is hotly contested. Those who argue that it does not exist for women claim that women are not represented in upper management well because they put their families before their careers. The argument against the glass ceiling concept as it concerns ethnic and racial minorities basically hinges on racial stereotypes. Opponents claim that groups like African Americans and Latinos are lazy and that they are not willing to do what it takes to get to the top.

The argument backing the glass ceiling concept for women accepts that many women do choose to leave the workplace to make a family but that those who do not have suffered because of the common misconception and stereotypes surrounding all women. Arguments backing the glass ceiling concept for ethnic and racial minorities claim that basic racist ideas as well as cultural conflicts hinder the ability of people of color to reach upper levels of management. Arguments that the glass ceiling does exist are the most convincing because they are all backed by facts that do indicate, for one reason or another, that minorities are not represented demographically in upper levels of management.

Also check the list of 100 most popular argumentative research paper topics.


  1. Barreto, Manuela, et al., eds., The Glass Ceiling in the 21st Century: Understanding Barriers to Gender Equality. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009.
  2. Bell, Ella L. J., and Stella M. Nkomo, Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.
  3. Catalyst, 2008 Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners of the Fortune 500. December 2008.
  4. Collins, S., “The Marginalization of Black Executives.” Social Problems 36 (1989): 317–331.
  5. Essed, Philomena, Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1991.
  6. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital. Washington, DC: 1995.
  7. Fierman, Jaclyn, “Why Women Still Don’t Hit the Top.” Fortune 122 (1990): 40.
  8. Friedman, R. A., and D. Carter, “African American Network Groups: Their Impact and Effectiveness.” Working Paper 93–069. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 1993.
  9. Hymowitz, Carol, and Timothy Schellhardt, “The Glass Ceiling.” Wall Street Journal (March 24, 1986).
  10. Karsten, Margaret Foegen, Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace: Issues and Challenges for Today’s Organizations. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.
  11. McNutt, L., The Glass Ceiling: It Can’t Be Shattered If It Doesn’t Exist. 2002.


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