The expression “the glass ceiling” first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1986 and was then used in the title of an academic article by A.M. Morrison and others published in 1987. Entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America’s Largest Corporations?”, it looked at the persistent failure of women to climb as far up the corporate ladder as might be expected from their representation in the working population as a whole. .
The idea behind the expression was that a transparent barrier, a glass ceiling, blocked them.
Invisible from the bottom, when women started their careers, it was steely strong in stopping them attaining equality with men later on. It helped explain the fact that in large corporations in Europe and North America women rarely came to account for more than 10% of senior executives and 4% of CEOs and chairmen.
A secondary issue is that of women’s pay. There is evidence that even when women do reach the highest levels of corporate management, they do not receive the same pay as men for the same job; a figure of 75% is often quoted. And rather than getting better over time, the position seems to be deteriorating.
One survey found that women executives in the United States were earning an even lower percentage of their male counterparts’ remuneration in 2000 than they were in 1995.
So worried was the American government about the issue that in 1991 it set up something called the Glass Ceiling Commission, a 21-member body appointed by the president and Congress and chaired by the labour secretary. The commission focused on barriers in three areas:
• the filling of management and decision-making positions;
• skills-enhancing activities; and
• compensation and reward systems.
The Glass Ceiling Commission “completed its mandate” in 1996 and was disbanded. Needless to say, the problem did not disappear with it. One of the first women to head a major Japanese company, when asked in 2005 what had changed least in Japanese business in the previous 20 years, said: “The mindset of Japanese gentlemen.”
Several theories have been presented to explain the glass ceiling:
• The time factor. One theory is that the cohorts of first-class female graduates have not yet had time to work through the pipeline and reach the top of the corporate hierarchy. Qualifications for a senior management post usually include a graduate degree and 25 years of continuous work experience. In the early 1970s, when today’s senior managers were graduating, fewer than 5% of law and MBA degrees were being awarded to women. Nowadays, women gain over 40% of all law degrees in the United States and 35% of MBAs.
• Motherhood. Sometimes the blame for the glass ceiling is laid at the door of motherhood. Women are distracted from their career path by the need to stay at home and rear children. They are unable to undertake the tasks required to reach the top; for example, extended trips abroad, wearing air miles like battle medals, long evenings “entertaining” clients and changing plans at short notice.
• Lack of role models. In her 1977 book “Men and Women of the Corporation”, Rosabeth Moss Kanter (see article) suggested that because managerial women are so often a token female in their work environment they stand out from the rest. This makes them (and their failures) much more visible, and exaggerates the differences between them and the dominant male culture.
Some authors recently have gone so far as to challenge the metaphor of the glass ceiling, arguing that it presents the image of a one-off blockage somewhere high up the career ladder, whereas in reality there is a whole series of obstacles along the way that hold women back.