Glass Ceiling: The Facts and How to Break It

Glass Ceiling: The Facts and How to Break It
Last Updated: December 29, 2022

    Whats Inside?


Imagine yourself literally reaching a glass ceiling, it is clear, and you can see everything above it. Unlike the usual ceilings we are used to where the ceiling is the end, the glass ceiling would make you want more from where you are. Unfortunately, you cannot go any further because of a seemingly invisible barrier preventing you from reaching the higher places that you would want to go to. A glass ceiling refers to the artificial barriers blocking the advancement of women and other minority groups from climbing up the corporate ladder, despite having the necessary qualifications and experiences (Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, 1995). In this article, we will be exploring more on the glass ceiling and its effects.


What Really is a Glass Ceiling?

Although the definition of what the glass ceiling is acknowledges that there is a barrier preventing certain groups of people from climbing up the corporate ladder, some points need to be taken into consideration. Not every barrier to advancement automatically results in being a glass ceiling. Cotter, Hermsen, Ovadia and Vanneman (2001), have identified four criteria that need to be checked for a given situation to be named as a glass ceiling. This is crucial as many people confuse the glass ceiling to other inequalities that block other people from advancing in their careers. It must be noted that discrimination based on one’s lifestyle choices do not qualify as being a part of the glass ceiling effect.

Cotter et al, (2001), have outlined the four criteria for the glass ceiling which are explained below:

  1. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-related characteristics of the employee. For example, two candidates (“black” and “white”) apply for a job, the “black” candidate has better qualifications and experience than her “white” colleague. The outcome surprisingly results in the latter securing the job position. This decision cannot be explained by their qualifications and experience, as based on that, as it should be, the “black” candidate should get the job.
  2. A glass ceiling represents a gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome. To be clearer, this means that these inequalities are more pronounced at higher levels of the corporate ladder than at the lower levels i.e as one moves up the ladder, the chances of being discriminated against based on the definition, increase.
  3. A glass ceiling represents a gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels. The best tests to test whether there is a glass ceiling: promotions to higher levels and income raises at those levels. For this test to be accurate, it ought to be conducted over time instead of looking at one outcome and concluding that it is a glass ceiling. An example is that, from a pool of 50 men and 50 women, 15 men and 7 women are promoted to the next level of management, this implies that the men in that group have nearly twice the chance of being promoted than the women.
  4. A glass ceiling inequality represents a gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career. According to Corcoran and Duncan (1979), “studies that observe career trajectories cab test whether a gender gap increases with increasing work experience”. For this claim to be valid, two criteria must be met:
  1. A comparative reference is still needed.
  2. The inequality must be greater at the top than at the bottom.


Facts about the Glass Ceiling

There is still some research to be done on the prevalence of the glass ceiling in our immediate environment but research conducted in the USA in 2003 showed that only 7 to 9% of upper management at Fortune 1000 firms were women.

According to Igasak (2005) on the Wall Street Journal’s Career Journal site, a similar study showed that 97% of top executives at the same companies were white. This clearly shows that these effects are highly prevalent in more industry types rather than a few.

Examples of Glass ceilings

A great example of a glass ceiling, as provided by the Healthline (2020), highlights the issue in the office of the President of the United States. No law prevents women from occupying the office, yet after over 40 presidents, this still has not happened.


The Effects of Glass Ceilings

The people who are most affected by the effects of the glass ceiling are women and other minority groups. This has significant effects on the general health of such people which, according to Healthline (2020), can be characterised by the following:

  1. Self-doubt.
  2. A strong feeling of isolation from those around you.
  3. Resentment.
  4. Anger.
  5. High levels of stress.
  6. Mood disorders


How to Handle a Glass Ceiling

Although there is no golden key to beating this oppressive system resulting in glass ceilings, there are a few strategies that one can pursue to try and make their situation less strenuous. Fritscher (2017), highlights some of the things that once can do to try and handle the effects of the glass ceiling.

  1. You may need to prove yourself twice as much as your male coworkers, especially if you happen to be both female and a minority.
  2. Take on extra assignments, particularly those that are high-profile.
  3. Make a point of bonding with the supervisor a level up from your own.
  4. Document all of your achievements and present them succinctly at each review.
  5. Become a part of the managerial network. Prove that you can become one of them.


What Can Employers do to Combat this Glass Ceiling?

Being in the top management of an organisation may give you some power in changing certain practices in the organisation.

  1. Push for equality at every level of the company.
  2. Be sure that women and minorities are fairly represented in any employee development programs that may exist.
  3. Actively recruit women if yours if a male-dominated field.



The glass ceiling is there which can not be denied. It has been there for as long as people can date back. Unfortunately, many people are used to the old practices of the corporate world that the change in including women and minority groups has been more difficult than easy. Take a look at where you are working and the organisation that you may be leading. What kind of environment is it fostering and does it discriminate against anyone based on these reasons? Find something you can do (if possible) to try and combat this practice that heavily affects the groups affected by it.

Thandeka Madziwanyika is a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm.

Phone +263 (242) 481946-48/481950 or

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Thandeka Madziwanyika
This article was written by Thandeka a Guest at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd

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