A brief history of the term “glass ceiling”

A long way up.
A long way up.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Last night (Sept. 26) the first presidential debate of 2016 was also the first gender balanced debate in history: for the very first time, a woman was on the stage, and the way the debate unfolded—with Donald Trump interrupting Hillary Clinton 51 times, and being openly sexist towards her—was a tangible reminder that never before women had come this close to leading the US.

In July, when Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate in the US, a video at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) showed her shattering an image of all of the presidents of the US, with the sound of broken glass. “I can’t believe we just put the biggest crack in the glass ceiling yet,” she said, at the end of the video.

The “glass ceiling” has become one of Clinton’s recurring themes. It captures the notion that as women climb the career ladder, their ambitions are capped by an invisible glass ceiling that they can’t see from the bottom, but bump against as they go higher up. In 2008, conceding the primary victory to Barack Obama, she had famously said ”although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time […] it’s got 18 million cracks in it,” referring to the votes she had received during the primaries.

She may be the most famous woman using the expression, but where does it come from?

It likely originated in 1979 (paywall), when Katherine Lawrence, a specialist in process control at Hewlett-Packard, told a colleague that women never seem to reach the top of the career ladder, but instead ”they hit this ceiling. This ceiling is invisible—a glass ceiling.” The idea refers to a set of unspoken rules and dynamics that favor (white) men in the workplace. Women are expected to drop out of the workforce to care for their families, they are given fewer promotions, and are often held to higher standards. She used the metaphor shortly after, speaking at the Women’s Institute for the Freedom of the Press. In the corporate world the official policy was that the “sky is the limit,” but for women it only looked that way.

The expression became increasingly popular, appearing in articles about women in the workplace. In 1984, in her book The Working Woman Report, Gay Bryant, editor of The Working Woman Magazine, wrote: “Women have reached a certain point—I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck.”

Shortly after, in 1986, the expression was used as the title of a Wall Street Journal article that was then turned into a book, Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can women reach the top of America’s largest corporations? 

The article and the book are credited with making ”glass ceiling” a ubiquitous phrase. The term was also adopted to refer to other discriminated groups, such as minorities, that face obstacles in rising through the ranks, yet it is still primarily used to refer to discrimination that women face.

In 1991, a commission was instituted by the US Labor Department to study structural barriers against women and minorities in the works place, and develop recommendations to overcome them. It was befittingly called the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission (pdf) and it provided an official definition of the glass ceiling as “the unseen, yet unbreachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”

Decades after the glass ceiling was first labeled as such, the situation it describes is still alive and well in America. The largest companies have far more women in entry level positions than they do in leadership roles, and the same is true in most other fields. In academia, even though women make up the majority of graduates, men hold the most prestigious positions. In health care, while 48% of all medical degrees are held by women and 78% of the workforce is female, only 14.6% of executives are women, and none is CEO. Women are only 3% of advertisement creative directors, 16% of executive workforce in high-grossing movies, and 9% of managerial positions in tech companies.

Breaking the Glass Ceiling predicted that ”women will take top management posts with the next 50 years,” although things may have evolved faster than that. While equality in positions of power cannot come fast enough, there is the sense that this year may represent a pivotal moment in history: with Angela Merkel leading Germany, Theresa May in the UK, and the possibility of a female United Nations Secretary General and US president, women may finally be about to run the world.