What does the term ‘glass ceiling’ mean?

When employer practices or attitudes create unseen barriers for women and minorities, employees may be operating under a glass ceiling scenario. The glass ceiling is a political term used to describe limitations placed on an employee’s ability to advance in the workplace based on gender.

The term most often refers to a form of sex discrimination which cuts women out of management, supervisory or executive roles based on unfair stereotypes and biased assumptions. When a female or minority employee advances into mid- or high-level senior positions, the achievement is sometimes referred to as ‘cracking the glass ceiling.’

Important Factors Behind Glass Ceiling Cases

  • The glass ceiling is an illegal form of employment discrimination usually falling under sex discrimination, in particular. If an employer is operating with a glass ceiling in place, an employee may have a claim against it under Title VII or other state or local sex discrimination laws.
  • Double Standards Due to Family Responsibilities – experiencing double standards which create barriers to advancement due to the responsibilities of raising a family
  • Unconscious Bias – prejudicial assumptions which keep women out of upper-level positions based on stereotypes about a woman’s ability to perform only certain tasks
  • ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ Networks – groups consisting of men only which do not properly include women as possible candidates for upper level positions

Proving a Glass Ceiling Case

Since the presence of a glass ceiling is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the same elements necessary for proving sex discrimination are necessary for a glass ceiling case. Title VII prohibits sex discrimination in all forms of the employment process including hiring, promotions and compensation.

To prove a glass ceiling sex discrimination case, an employee must show that she is an employee meeting all requirements of her job duties. She must also show that her employer took adverse action against her, based on her gender, that was not taken against other males on the job. In addition to these claims, glass ceiling cases may also involve a history of disportionate hiring or promotion practices that consistently favor men over women.

Examples of Glass Ceiling Scenarios

  • You have repeatedly applied for a promotion without success, as men with fewer qualifications consistently obtain promotions ahead of you.
  • Since the birth of your second and third children, you have consistently been overlooked for pay raises and promotions to senior level positions that often go to more men throughout your company than women.
  • Your pay has been consistently lower than that of your male counterparts which prevents you from advancing up the corporate hierarchy.