DEFINITION: The “glass ceiling” is a metaphor used by progressive economists, sociologists, politicians, and others to explain the fact that the higher up a corporate hierarchy one looks, the fewer the number of women one finds.
USAGE: While there are many more female CEOs and other high-level corporate officers today (2022) than there were in the past, it still remains the case that men far outnumber women at the top of the corporate pyramid.
The question is, Why?
The concept of the glass ceiling was invented to explain this empirical fact.
Progressives believe the answer to this question is the lingering presence of male chauvinism, patriarchal attitudes, and “good-old-boy” networks.
On this theory, then, female employees with similar educational backgrounds and experience to their male peers fail to be promoted in proportion to their numbers in an organizational structure for the simple reason that misogyny, or anti-woman prejudice, still exists.
However, it is not necessarily part of this analysis that this form of prejudice is conscious (though it may be). Rather, the claim is that the capitalist system within which commercial institutions are embedded is systematically structured by patriarchy, conceived of as a set of practices.
In summary, the concept of the glass ceiling maintains that the lack of women in corner suites may be explained by systematic anti-woman prejudice. In the twentieth-first century, this type of prejudice is no longer out in the open—whence the metaphor of a ceiling that is invisible to the naked eye—but it is nonetheless very real, indeed effectively impenetrable.
In other words, women in the contemporary business world are allowed to rise so high in the corporate hierarchy, but no higher.
Conservative critics point to alternative explanations of the empirical facts.
Among these explanations are the greater proportion of women, in comparison with men, who:
- give up their career to raise their family
- refuse to put in the regular 80-hour weeks their male peers do
- are less aggressive than men and less comfortable pushing themselves forward