An HR Glossary for HR Terms

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

Glass Ceiling

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a metaphor that describes the invisible barrier that prevents women and minorities from attaining leadership and executive positions in organizations. Coined in the 1980s, this phrase was initially only used to describe the limits put on women in the workplace, but it has since been extended to include racial and ethnic minorities who likewise are at a disadvantage when it comes to career advancement to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder.

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Is the Glass Ceiling Still a Problem?

In short, yes. Gender and racial inequality still exist in the workplace in the U.S. According to a report by Pew Research Center, women and all race and ethnic groups (with the exception of Asian men) still lag behind white men in medium hourly earnings. In their research on women in the workplace, McKinsey found that some improvements have been made in increasing the representation of women at the C-suite level, which rose from 17 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2019. However, women are still underrepresented across all levels of industry. This is even more the case when looking at minority women. McKinsey quantifies this gap in no uncertain terms: “About one in five C-suite executives is a woman—and only one in 25 C-suite executives is a woman of color.”

Some evidence points to a problem with allowing enough diverse talent to make it through the pipeline—what McKinsey calls the “broken rung.” In essence, not as many women and minorities are promoted to managerial positions, making it so that there is less diversity in candidates to promote to senior leadership and executives positions. McKinsey notes that “for every 100 men promoted and hired to manager, only 72 women are promoted and hired.”

How Can HR Help Promote Diversity and Reduce the Effects of the Glass Ceiling?

There are many ways that HR can help remove or mitigate the glass ceiling. To begin with, McKinsey’s findings suggest that organizations need to build a better, more diverse workforce to begin with and to consciously make efforts to promote diverse candidates to first-level management.

For more ideas on promoting diversity in your workplace, see our more in-depth resources on this topic: