The Glass Ceiling: How to Shatter It for Yourself and Others

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Updated March 2024

The workplace is constantly changing, and with it, the workforce. Technological changes, generational changes, reactions to public health policies and new legislation—there’s a lot going on in the world.

One change that has slowly taken place over the last half-century is the increase of women in the workforce. According to Deloitte, women are expected to continue gaining their share of the overall workforce, rising from 46.8 percent of the workforce in 2014 to 47.2 percent in 2024.

While the number of women in executive and managerial positions is continuing to grow, there is still a long way to go to achieve gender parity in leadership. Women (and other underrepresented groups) still come up against an invisible barrier that keeps them from achieving their full potential in the workplace: the glass ceiling.

As we’ve shared before, companies reap financial benefits when leadership has greater racial and gender diversity. Companies that don’t break the glass ceiling may get left behind.

Note: Historically, the glass ceiling and other terms have referred to challenges women face in the workplace. However, over time, these terms have expanded to include other historically underrepresented groups. While this article primarily focuses on women’s experiences, you will also find relevant research for other groups. 

So, what can you do to combat this invisible obstacle?

The best way to avoid the glass ceiling is to understand what it is, what causes it, and how we can improve the workplace for women.

Let’s get started.

Two women talking about politics at work.

What is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a popular term to describe the invisible barriers women encounter when trying to advance in the workplace. Although it is difficult to quantify, the glass ceiling remains a significant obstacle for many women.

The term was first coined in 1978 by Marilyn Loden to describe the invisible barrier that limits women’s advancement in the workforce. The glass ceiling can refer to various issues that affect women in the workplace, including;

  • the gender pay gap
  • the lack of women in leadership positions
  • sexual harassment
  • microaggressions

The History of the Glass Ceiling

The term gained popularity in the 1980s when more and more women began entering male-dominated industries and speaking out about the challenges they faced in the workplace.

In 1991, U.S. Congress enacted the Glass Ceiling Act. This established the Glass Ceiling Commission to study barriers preventing women and racial minorities from reaching senior leadership in the workplace.

Despite the progress made over the past few decades, women are still underrepresented in leadership positions in the private and public sectors.

Glass Ceiling vs. Glass Cliff

The glass cliff is another term used to describe a specific, unfair scenario in the workplace.

As already explained, the glass ceiling is a term used to describe the unseen, unbreakable barrier limiting the advancement of women and other minorities in the workplace.

On the other hand, the glass cliff is a term used when women and/or Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) are promoted to a position of power during times of crisis.

Multiple studies have found the existence of the glass cliff in business, sports, and politics, particularly in countries that rank lower in gender equality.

When the glass cliff happens, the end result is often a scapegoat. A woman or racial minority receives a big promotion, but when they can’t quickly overcome an existing crisis, they’re blamed for circumstances beyond their control.

There is good news, though. Some research indicates that as gender equality and racial equality grow, the glass cliff disappears.

Glass Ceiling vs. Broken Rung

McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2023 report, done in collaboration with LeanIn.Org, is the largest study on the state of women in corporate America. Between 2015 and 2023, the researchers surveyed over 450,000 people in over 900 companies. Year after year, their findings demonstrate that the glass ceiling starts early, at the first round of promotions. This is the broken rung.

In 2023, for every 100 men promoted from entry level to manager, only 87 women were promoted. When looking at race and gender, the gap is even more stark, with only 73 women of color promoted to manager. Additional research shows that promotion rates for Black men are also low, with 66 first-time promotions compared to 100 men of every race.

This disparity between white men and other professionals early in their career translates into more white men in the pipeline, positioned for senior-level opportunities.

The Mental and Emotional Toll of the Glass Ceiling and Other Barriers

In addition to the obvious financial implications, the glass ceiling can also affect women’s mental and emotional health.

The stress of constantly hitting barriers can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout.

There are multiple ways to promote mental health and well-being in the workplace. A genuine commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in the workplace is an important first step.

A black woman sits at her computer writing notes from information on the screen.

Factors Contributing to the Glass Ceiling in the Workplace

Women have made substantial progress in the workplace since the 1970s. In 1973, Katharine Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took the helm of The Washington Post. In January 2023, five new women ascended to CEO of Fortune 500 companies, bringing the current total to 53.

This is just one example of the strides women have made in the last 50 years, but there is still room to grow.

Several factors contribute to the continued existence of the glass ceiling. Let’s quickly review two main factors, and then discuss tactics to shatter the glass ceiling.

Gender Stereotypes

Good news and bad news came out of a Northwestern meta-analysis of U.S. public opinion polls from 1946 to 2018.

Good news: The latest polls indicate that most American adults (86 percent of respondents) view men and women as equally competent.

Bad news: Beliefs about men and women’s communion skills (affection, compassion, etc.) and agency skills (ambition, aggression, etc.) remain largely unchanged since the 1940s.

So then women are told to “lean in” and “ask for a raise,” as though copying the assumed behaviors of men will make all the difference in their career trajectory.

But a longitudinal study of 3,345 MBA graduates, all of whom followed a “traditional” career path, found distinct differences in career outcomes based on gender. Even when the women did everything “right,” they still lagged behind their male counterparts.

An additional study by Boston Consulting Group dispelled the myth of the gender “ambition gap.” Their findings indicate that men and women start their careers as equally ambitious, and they remain equally ambitious when they work for companies that prioritize gender diversity. However, women’s ambition drops when they work at companies that lack progress in gender diversity.

McKinsey’s research on Women in the Workplace finds the same thing. In fact, women are even more ambitious now than they were before the pandemic. 96% of women said that their career is important to them, and 81% of them want to to be promoted to the next level this year, exactly matching men’s aspirations in the workplace.

It doesn’t matter when women utilize the same agency skills as men, or when they take actions that show ambition. Gender stereotypes and unconscious bias can still hold us back from achieving equality in the workplace.

Lack of Mentors or Sponsors

Another factor contributing to the glass ceiling is the lack of mentors and sponsors. A mentor is someone with experience and knowledge who shares that information with a mentee. A sponsor is someone in power who uses their influence to help a junior employee get promoted.

One global study of businesswomen found that 63 percent of respondents had never had a formal mentor.

One challenge is the unconscious bias most people have regarding relationships, especially at work. Generally speaking, people tend to gravitate toward people who are like them. This means men in senior leadership are more likely to mentor other men.

There’s already a gender gap in senior leadership. With fewer women in senior leadership, this often leads to fewer mentorship and sponsorship opportunities for junior women. In turn, fewer women get promoted to senior leadership, and the cycle continues.

Until senior leaders make a concerted effort to mentor and sponsor female employees, the glass ceiling will remain an obstacle for many women.

A woman shakes the hand of another woman who she just offered a promotion to.

How to Break the Glass Ceiling

Individual women can break the glass ceiling for themselves, but breaking the glass ceiling for everyone requires a combined effort of individual efforts and company initiatives. The first two ideas below are for individuals to do to break the glass ceiling. The subsequent ideas are for companies to implement.

Talk to Upper Management

If you’re a woman looking for a promotion, be clear about your ambitions. Talk to your direct leader and other company leaders you know well. Ask for advice on how to earn a promotion, and follow through on any suggestions or feedback you receive.

Mentor Women in the Workplace

One way to help break the glass ceiling is by mentoring women in the workplace. By sharing your knowledge and experience with others, you can help them succeed in their careers.

Mentoring can be informal, such as lending a listening ear or offering advice when asked. Or it can be more formal, such as participating in a mentorship program at your company.

Either way, you can make a difference in the lives of women by mentoring and sponsoring them.

Track Employee Experiences and Progression

If you track hiring, promotions, and attrition with an intersectional lens, you can see where your company stands. Tracking metrics by gender, race, and other self-reported identifiers creates transparency around the results of any DEIB initiatives. Share goals and metrics with the company—and start evaluating managers on DEIB metrics.

Create a Formal Mentorship Program

As already mentioned, when mentorship at work is informal, women are often left out. With a formal mentorship program, everyone has the same opportunity to connect with a mentor. A mentorship program can provide women with the skills and support they need to succeed in the workplace.

Offer Resources Specifically for Women

One way that companies can shatter the glass ceiling is by designing a great workplace for women. Offer leadership development tailored for women as well as benefits that help women. Here are a few ideas:

These policies won’t exclusively benefit women, but they can definitely help women succeed in the workplace.

Break the Glass Ceiling with Insight Global

Insight Global routinely gets listed as a great workplace for women, and our CEO is also recognized for his commitment to advancing DEIB in the workplace.

We’ve used our collective knowledge and experiences to create DEIB services for other companies looking to break the glass ceiling. Whether you need help recruiting women returning to the workforce or retaining your current talent, we can help.

Break the glass ceiling!

Work with Insight Global to create a great workplace for women.