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A glass ceiling is a political term used to describe "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."
Initially, and sometimes still today, the metaphor was applied by feminists in reference to barriers in the careers of high achieving women. In the US the concept is sometimes extended to refer to obstacles hindering the advancement of minority men, as well as women.
David Cotter and colleagues defined four distinctive characteristics that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists. A glass ceiling inequality represents:
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. In contrast, the researchers did not find evidence of a glass ceiling for African-American men.
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"). 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. 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.
The concept of glass ceiling was originally introduced outside of print media at the National Press Club in July 1979 at a Conference of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press by Katherine Lawrence of Hewlett Packard. This was part of an ongoing discussion of a clash between written policy of promotion versus action opportunities for women at HP. The term was coined by Lawrence and HP manager Marianne Schreiber.
The term was later used in March 1984 by Gay Bryant. She was the former editor of Working Woman magazine and was changing jobs to be the editor of Family Circle. In an Adweek article by Nora Frenkel, Bryant was reported as saying, "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. There isn't enough room for all those women at the top. Some are going into business for themselves. Others are going out and raising families." Also in 1984, Bryant used the term in a chapter of the book The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the 1980s. In the same book, Basia Hellwig used the term in another chapter.
In a widely cited article in the Wall Street Journal in March 1986 the term was used in the article's title: "The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs." The article was written by Carol Hymowitz and Timothy D. Schellhardt. In 1991 the US Labor Department's chief, Lynn Morley Martin, reported the results of a research project called "The Glass Ceiling Initiative" formed to investigate the low numbers of women and minorities in executive positions. This report defined the new term as "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions."
The gender pay gap is the difference between male and female earnings. In 2008 the OECD found that the median earnings of female full-time workers were 17% lower than the earnings of their male counterparts and that "30% of the variation in gender wage gaps across OECD countries can be explained by discriminatory practices in the labour market." The European Commission found that women's hourly earnings were 17.5% lower on average in the 27 EU Member States in 2008. The female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.77 in the United States in 2009.
Governments, organizations, and individuals around the world have tried to encourage an increase in the number of women who reach the upper echelons of power. Many nations have made progress (Canada has set up a government program to encourage female participation on corporate boards) but the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have done more than any other region in the world to address female corporate participation. The Nordic nations have generous maternity leave laws, state child care, and quotas requiring publicly listed firms to allocate 40% of corporate board seats to women. In the latest Global Gender Gap Report, the top five countries were all Nordic.
The effectiveness of these changes on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder have been hugely successful. The effects on the higher rungs has been difficult to determine. Critics point out that in America, 5% of Fortune 500 companies have a female CEO. In much more egalitarian Norway the number is only 6%. Paradoxically, the excellent maternity leave offered in the Nordic countries may be partially responsible for Denmark receiving 72nd place in terms of the gender pay gap among senior managers and officials as generous leave encourages women to take long breaks early in their careers while men continue to gain experience. This lack of experience is hurting women's salaries at the upper end of the pay scale despite every effort to close the gap.
The pieces of the glass ceiling that remain in the Nordic countries can be removed using the same tools Human Resources organizations are already encouraging companies to use. Powerful women must mentor other women to encourage and prepare them for the realities of corporate life. Indeed, many women in power have already published books and other reference material to help guide the conversation and encourage mothers to balance home and office life. In a survey published by a leading HR company, 25% of women indicated that leadership development programs for women were a top way to encourage female advancement. This indicates that companies must nurture a strong pool of high flying female employees who should be given plenty of challenging assignments. Twenty-eight percent of women involved in the survey also said that flexible scheduling was very important. General wisdom given by both Human Resources firms and industry publications indicates that, overall, employers should encourage fathers to share the parenting load by allowing flexible time and paternity leave and corporations should stop valuing continuity of service so highly. Both these measures will reduce the impact of parental leave and help tap into the large and well educated female workforce.