An invisible upper limit in corporations and other organizations, above which it is difficult or impossible for women to rise in the ranks.
It is glass because it's not usually a visible barrier, and a woman may not be aware of its existence until she "hits" the barrier. In other words, it's not an explicit practice. The term was popularized in the 1980s.
Those who believe that there is no "glass ceiling" argue:
- women's job choices keep them off of the executive track
- women don't have the right educational preparation for senior executive jobs (e.g. an M.B.A.)
- women who do make job choices that put them on the executive track and do have the right educational preparation have not been in the corporation long enough to build up experience -- and this will automatically correct itself with time
So has there been progress since the 1970s and 1980s? The conservative feminist organization, Independent Women's Forum, points out that in 1973, 11% of corporate boards had one or more women members, and that in 1998, 72% of corporate boards had one or more women members.
On the other hand, the Glass Ceiling Commission (created by Congress in 1991 as a 20-member bipartisan commission) in 1995 looked at Fortune 1000 and Fortune 500 companies, and found that only 5% of the senior management positions were held by women.
In 1999 a woman, Carleton Fiorina, was named CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Hewlett-Packard, and she declared that women now faced "no limits whatsoever. There is not a glass ceiling."
The number of women in senior executive positions still lags considerably behind the number of men. A 2008 survey showed that 95% of American workers believe that women have made "important advances in the workplace over the last 10 years" but 86% believe that the glass ceiling has not been broken, even if it has been cracked.
Examples: "My objective as Secretary of Labor is to look through the 'glass ceiling' to see who is on the other side, and to serve as a catalyst for change." - Elizabeth Dole
The U.S. Department of Labor's 1991 definition of glass ceiling is "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions." (Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. U.S. Department of Labor, 1991.)