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Glass ceiling definition: what is the glass ceiling?

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Glass ceiling definition

The glass ceiling is a metaphor used to describe the invisible barrier that prevents - or makes it harder for - minority groups from advancing to top positions within a company or organisation, achieving promotions or otherwise reaching certain career achievements. The word “ceiling” implies that there is a limit to how far someone can advance in their career before facing a barrier, and the ceiling being made of glass suggests that the barriers are unspoken or intangible, with the goal being visible but out of reach.   

The sociological concept was coined in 1978 by Marilyn Loden, an American author, diversity advocate and management consultant, after she reported witnessing self-deprecating behaviours in women, who allegedly held a poor self-image, compared to men. 

The “invisible glass ceiling”, which represents the inability to climb beyond a certain part of the career ladder (usually upper management or other higher leadership positions), was initially coined to portray the career challenges that women face. However, the term has since evolved to include other underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities. Examples of the glass ceiling include being excluded from important meetings and being passed over for a deserved promotion in favour of a male colleague.

Real-world context

  • Lack of diversity in leadership roles: The glass ceiling can create barriers which restrict certain demographics from reaching leadership positions. Organisations which lack diversity in leadership risk missing out on diversity of thought, experience and perspectives, which can hinder innovation, creativity and overall organisational success.  
  • Gender pay gap: The glass ceiling contributes to the gender pay gap as it hinders women’s advancement into senior roles, limiting women’s access to high-earning roles. According to the Office for National Statistics, the gender pay gap in the UK is 7.7%. By shattering the glass ceiling and addressing existing barriers, organisations can take strides towards workplace equity and fairer compensation.  
  • Decreased employee morale: When employees perceive that their career advancement is unfairly restricted based on factors like gender or ethnicity, it can lead to demotivation and a decline in overall morale and job satisfaction. Organisations who do not address the constraints of the glass ceiling are therefore at risk of increased employee turnover, a damaged reputation, and may face difficulties in attracting and retaining top talent as a result. 

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