glass ceiling

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

Before we shatter it, it’s important to understand what the glass ceiling actually is. You may have heard the term tossed around in discussions here and there, but it’s more than just a conversation filler.

The glass ceiling, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions.” This can be a complex definition for those confronting the term for the first time or especially for those who believe that minorities don’t really face any disadvantages in the workplace. So let’s break it down further.

An intangible barrier is anything that doesn’t have a material manifestation – it’s invisible. This means it’s often difficult to observe or measure unless we pay really close attention to all the fine details. For example, the pay gap between men and women – and especially white men and women of colour – was invisible for a very long time. Not only because nobody spoke about it, but also because it was hard to calculate effectively. Even now, despite the fact that multiple studies have been conducted to prove that the gender pay gap exists, many deny its prevalence due to debate about the statistics included in these studies. But this is just one example of the many intangible barriers that arise in the workplace today.

When these barriers crop up within a hierarchy, an already unequal system due to the ranking of members according to their relative authority, they become hidden within the system’s fabric. This makes it both hard for us to recognise them and, thereafter, separate them from the current set of corporate mechanisms that run our offices. The glass ceiling can thus appear in the form of “sticky floors,” the social and psychological patterns that force minorities to remain in low-level positions, or “frozen middles,” a phenomenon where the progress of minorities slows or halts when they reach middle management.

Because of these two factors, coupled with the power structures of the status quo (wherein upper-class, upper-caste, privileged, mostly white/Savarna cis-men control our institutions and ways of life), the glass ceiling becomes an undeniable reality for minorities across the globe. We can see this in numerous ways: How many women CEOs run the world’s Fortune 500 companies? How many LGTBQIA+ folks reach upper-level management in a formal organisation? How many Muslims do we see upfront in our political spheres? On the other hand, how many of the world’s billionaires are men? How many businessmen can we name off the top of our heads?

These are all symptoms of workplaces and their glass ceilings. As those with privilege seek to maintain control in corporate spaces and economists try to explain their way out of equality through “value economics,” the only way forward is to recognise these systemic barriers and actively tackle them. The term “glass ceiling” may have been coined in 1978 by Marilyn Loden, but it is still, unfortunately, relevant today. However, as more minorities influence hiring and workplace policies, we have a more equitable future to look forward to.

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