Susan G. Bednar, LCSW

Hitting the Glass Ceiling

The term “glass ceiling” refers to an unseen but nevertheless effective barrier to advancement experienced by women who aspire to move up the career ladder.  Largely invisible to those not directly affected by it, the glass ceiling handicaps women or prevents them from successfully competing against men at various points in their careers.  If you are a woman trying to advance, particularly in a field dominated by men, then you’ve probably experienced the glass ceiling for yourself.  If you’ve not yet experienced it, or if you’re a man, you may not even be sure there is such a thing as a glass ceiling.  Unless you are very observant you may be blissfully unaware of its presence until you or a loved one runs head on into the barrier.

In 1991, the U.S. Congress responded to this problem—yes it is a real problem– by enacting the Glass Ceiling Act as part of Title II of the Civil Rights Act.  They also established a Glass Ceiling Commission for the express purpose of identifying artificial barriers blocking women and minorities from advancement in their careers. The Commission identified four types of barriers functioning at different levels of the system, including societal, governmental, internal business, and business structural barriers (Johns, 2013).  Between 1991 and 1995 the Commission published a series of reports summarizing their findings and recommendations.  You can read them all here.  The barriers are real, and we have our work cut out for us.

In the years since 1995, we have seen women increasingly represented in the workforce however there remains a significant pay gap and women remain underrepresented in upper management positions.  Researchers have identified related phenomenon such as the “glass wall” which concentrates female managers into certain job sectors (Berry, 2010), the “second glass ceiling” which impedes female entrepreneurs from accessing the financial capital needed to grow their businesses (Bosse & Taylor, 2012), the “glass cliff” which shuttles women into precarious positions and sets them up for failure (Sabharwal, 2013), and the “glass escalator” which enables men in female dominated settings to gain quicker access to promotions and other benefits (Smith, 2012).  They have also linked the glass ceiling with discrimination and sexual harassment (Bell, McLaughlin, & Sequeira, 2002), and done some additional work on identifying the ways in which stereotypes arise.  Fiske’s work on “Managing Ambivalent Prejudices:  Smart-but-Cold and Warm-but-Dumb Stereotypes” (2012) is particularly enlightening in regards to how more traditional women may be pitied and over helped, hindering their growth, while less traditional women and women who are professionals may be envied and become the target of resentment.

Despite the great strides we have taken, women remain severely handicapped when it comes to our careers.  While we seem to have made progress towards the elimination of some of the more blatant forms of sexism and discrimination against women in the workplace, less visible forms of bias remain, and because they are less visible, onlookers may not realize just how damaging they are.

Subtle reminders that women are seen as less valued or less capable than men are peppered throughout our everyday language.   Male pronouns are used to refer to both sexes, implying that maleness is the norm.   Women in positions of power or respect are referred to as anomalies (i.e., female professor, woman doctor, lady lawyer).  Equivalent terms referring to male and female individuals have come to have positive connotations associated with the male terms, and negative connotations with the female terms (i.e., “master” vs. “mistress,” “sir” vs. “madam”).  Assertive males may be described as strong, decisive, and leaders, while assertive females may be described as bossy, bitchy, and disruptive.  The media focuses on male accomplishments, but on female appearance.  Female accomplishments may be downplayed or attributed to the men in their lives, while male accomplishments are assumed to be their own.  Women may be held to a higher or just plain different standard from men.  Boys can be boys, but girls are supposed to be good and proper, and gorgeous to boot.  The biases evident in our language are just the tip of an iceberg, alerting us to the continued existence of discrimination against women, always there but mostly hidden from view.

All of this aversive treatment takes its toll on women, who may experience lowered self esteem, more physical pain, and an increased incidence of stress-related symptoms, including anxiety and depression.  Women who are harassed or bullied at work may experience even more serious impacts.  One meta-analytic study (Chan et al., 2008) of the impact of sexual harassment reports poorer job-related outcomes, psychological health, and physical health among victims of harassment.  Just to add insult to injury, physicians treating women are more likely to dismiss their symptoms as being inconsequential, exaggerated, or even imaginary, making it more difficult for women to obtain help for real problems that may have resulted from unfair treatment in the workplace.

If you are a woman whose career has been adversely affected by sexism and the glass ceiling, you are far from alone.  While young women just starting their career or women with few career aspirations may not yet have encountered the glass ceiling, many more ambitious and talented women have struggled with it throughout their careers, and even found that it becomes harder and harder as they advance.

If you’ve experienced the glass ceiling effect at work, I’d love to hear from you about that experience, and I hope you’ll share a bit about it in the comments section of this blog post.  How has the glass ceiling blocked your career progress?

Want to learn more about glass ceilings and how to shatter them?  My October newsletter article in “Peaceful Home, Peaceful Workplace” will focus on what to do about that glass ceiling that’s holding you back.  If you have not already done so, you can subscribe via my website at:

Partial List of References

Bell, M.P., McLaughlin, M.E. and Sequeira, J.M. (2002).  “Discrimination, harassment, and the glass ceiling:  Women executives as change agents,” Journal of Business Ethics, 37(1), 65-76.

Berry, P. (2010).  “Women in the world of corporate business:  Looking at the glass ceiling,” Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 3(2), 1-10.

Bosse, D.A. & Taylor, P.L. III.  (2012). “The second glass ceiling impedes women entrepreneurs,” The Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 17(1), 52-68.

Chan, D.K., Lam, C.B, Chow, S.Y. & Chaing, S.H. (2008).  “ Examining the job-related psychological and physical outcomes of workplace sexual harassment:  A meta-analytic review,” Psychology of Women Quarterly, (32(4).

Fiske, S.T. (2012).  “Managing ambivalent prejudices: Smart-but-cold and warm-but-dumb stereotypes,” American Academy of Political and Social Science, 639(1), 33-48.

Johns, M.L. (2013).  “Breaking the glass ceiling: Structural, cultural, and organizational barriers preventing women from achieving senior and executive positions,” Perspectives in Health Information Management, 10(winter).

Sabharwal, M. (2013).  “From glass ceiling to glass cliff:  Women in senior executive service,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, (advance access).

Smith, R.A. (2012).  “Money, benefits, and power:  A test of the glass ceiling and glass escalator hypotheses,” American Academy of Political and Social Science, 639(1), 149-172.


Important Note:  This blog is intended for informational and discussion purposes only, and does not substitute for professional care.  Your circumstances may differ from those discussed, and your needs may be different.  If you are experiencing distress you feel unable to resolve on your own, please seek assistance from a qualified professional of your choice.