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10.13: Gender and Employment

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    A glass ceiling is a term used to describe the unseen, yet unbreakable, barrier that keeps one from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of qualifications or achievements.”[1]

    Initially, and sometimes still today, the metaphor was applied by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high achieving women.[2] In the US the concept is sometimes extended to refer to obstacles hindering the advancement of minority men, as well as women.[2]


    David Cotter and colleagues defined four distinctive characteristics that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists. A glass ceiling inequality represents:

    1. “A gender or racial difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee.”
    2. “A gender or racial difference that is greater at higher levels of an outcome than at lower levels of an outcome.”
    3. “A gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels, not merely the proportions of each gender or race currently at those higher levels.”
    4. “A gender or racial inequality that increases over the course of a career.”

    Cotter and his colleagues found that glass ceilings are correlated strongly with gender. Both white and African-American women face a glass ceiling in the course of their careers. [3]

    The glass ceiling metaphor has often been used to describe invisible barriers (“glass”) through which women can see elite positions but cannot reach them (“ceiling”).[4] These barriers prevent large numbers of women and ethnic minorities from obtaining and securing the most powerful, prestigious, and highest-grossing jobs in the workforce.[5] Moreover, this effect may make women feel they are not worthy to fill high-ranking positions or as if their bosses do not take them seriously or see them as potential candidates for advancement.[6][7]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The chart above reflects women’s earnings in comparison to men’s earnings in the United States from 1979-2014. The pay gap is closing but women still earn less than men. [8]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The chart above reflects U.S. women’s earnings in comparison to U.S. men’s earnings based on age and full time work. [8]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The chart above reflects U.S. women’s earnings and ethnicity in comparison to U.S. men’s earnings and ethnicity in 2014. [8]

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    The table above reflects U.S. gender, age, ethnicity, marriage status, union affiliation, and educational attainment in comparison to earnings in 2014. [8]

    Notes and References

    1. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Solid Investments: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, November 1995, p. 4.
    2. ^ Jump up to:a b Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital.Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor, March 1995, p. iii.
    3. Cotter, David A., Joan M. Hermsen, Seth Ovadia, and Reece Vanneman (2001). The glass ceiling effect. Social Forces, Vol. 80 No. 2, pp. 655–81.
    4. *Davies-Netzley, Sally A. (1998). Women above the Glass Ceiling: Perceptions on Corporate Mobility and Strategies for Success Gender and Society, Vol. 12, No. 3, p. 340,doi:10.1177/0891243298012003006.
    5. Hesse-Biber and Carter 2005, p. 77.
    6. Nevill, Ginny, Alice Pennicott, Joanna Williams, and Ann Worrall. Women in the Workforce: The Effect of Demographic Changes in the 1990s. London: The Industrial Society, 1990, p. 39, ISBN 978-0-85290-655-2.
    7. US Department of Labor. “Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital”. Office of the Secretary. Retrieved 9 April 2011.
    8. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Highlights of Women’s Earning in 2014”. US Department of Labor. Retrieved 22 April2016.

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