The Glass Ceiling

The term, ‘glass ceiling,’ is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an intangible barrier within a hierarchy that prevents women or minorities from obtaining upper-level positions. ” It is unclear who first used this phrase, or when, but it is believed to have been coined by Marilyn Loden, when she spoke on a panel at the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York (Washington Post). The glass ceiling is ever-pervasive, and looms over the heads of successful women and minorities. In the most simple language, it is a cap on the level of success women or other minorities — such as non-White people and LGBTQ people — can achieve in their careers, a cap not present for the careers’ of their heterosexual, white male colleagues. Invariably, it connotes a confinement of bodies that do note approach what Puwar calls the ‘somatic norm’ within a space that itself involves a politics of hierarchy. The ‘somatic’ or embodied norm functions as the body that is left unquestioned within a space, and is defined more so by its exclusions than its inclusions. It is an invisible barrier on advancement, keeping women and other minorities from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate latter regardless of their skills and qualifications, and requiring them to take on the role of ‘space invaders.’

The U.S. Department of Labor defined a glass ceiling as “those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions.”As part of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, a “glass ceiling commission” was established in the U.S. Department of Labor, led by Joyce D.  Miller of the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union. The commission was in place until 1996. when it completed its mandate (Digital Commons). Its findings stressed the need for wage equality, parental leave, and better state provision of child care.

While ‘glass ceiling’ is a relatively young phrase, there is already a study beginning to form around the metaphor’s connotative nucleus. Other phrases are now working alongside it. There is the ‘glass cliff,’ a metaphor referring to a phenomena where women are put in higher positions of power during times of crisis, and therefore when the chance of failure is the highest.  Additionally, there is the ‘glass elevator,’ referring to the way in which men progress faster in women-dominated fields.

To understand why ‘glass’ is the common denominator between these phrases, which all deal with the covert biases and inequality towards women and minorities regarding position of influences, we must look at the properties of glass. Glass is a hard material, but one that can be molded into many shapes. A glass ceiling is invisible, but nevertheless present, and the sound of glass breaking is loud and shrill. Still, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote, “from young women of colour: they very much object to the idea that you can see through this ceiling. For them, it’s thoroughly opaque and seemingly unbreakable” (Washington Post). Therefore, this ceiling, depending on it it is made from glass or from concrete, poses different restrictions on various groups under its umbrella of influence. White, straight, non-trans women form their own somatic norm, which women of other races must excessively exceed in order to be inhabit, or ‘coexist,’ in spaces of power. The racial equivalent has been called the ‘concrete ceiling,’ and connotes an even tougher barrier to break. While there has been a call for all these groups to, ‘raise the roof,’ so to speak, different materials and procedures are needed for this to be done. A concrete ceiling does not shatter as easily as a glass one. Still, as Hillary Clinton famously said during her 2008 concession speech, “Although we were not able to shatter the highest,  hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, its got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before” (Williams). This suggests that, just as it takes more than one person to build a glass ceiling, it also takes more than one person to break one down. Concrete is more durable, more opaque and daunting, but concrete is not unbreakable.

Within this structure is a constant battle over space, one that is naturally predicated against the female. Within law and government positions, men “are metonymically linked to the nation. Women feature as allegorical figures that signify the virtues of the nation” (Puwar 6).  The soldier, though anonymous, retains one known characteristic: his inferred masculinity. Therefore, to be equal navigators within a governmental space, a woman must address not only the feminized ‘soft issues,’ but the ‘hard issues’ that a male figure would generally be thought to address. She is expected to take on a variety of ‘feminized’ roles, while also embodying the ‘masculine’ virtues of hardness, strength, and rationality. From the very beginning, the female occupying governmental space is a ‘space invader,’ who struggles to maintain power in the space as she is essentially breathing air not designated for her. Her level of original alienation is magnified when other ‘othered’ characteristics are at play: a non-white woman, a transgender woman, and a gay woman must especially have iron lungs. The somatic norm, and who is allowed to embody it, is itself a hierarchy. The right to inhabit a space also connotes the privilege to move through space with the least amount of difficulty. 

The ‘other’ is not allowed the freedom of invisibility; “‘space invaders’ endure a burden of doubt, a burden of representation, infantilization and super-surveillance. Existing under the optic lens of suspicion and surveillance, racialized bodies in politics, the arts, universities and bureaucracies are all too easily seen to be lacking the desired competencies” (Puwar 11). In the workforce, women do not have a ‘suit’ that is immediately appropriate to dress in (Puwar 96) — and correlatively they do not easily fit into the suit of the professional workspace that has been designed and engineered for men. A suit, while made of parts, concludes in a whole. Women have to scramble to make the parts fit and pass in a professional workspace where, ‘style is never fully self-styled’ and where, “talk about women in sexual terms amongst men underscores a shared sense of masculinity” (Puwar 87). The ‘glass ceiling’ is the moment longer that it takes a room of congressmen to take a woman seriously. 


Călinescu, Matei, and Matei Călinescu. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Postmodernism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987. Print.


Gervais, Sarah J., Theresa K. Vescio, Jens Förster, Anne Maass, and Caterina Suitner. “Seeing Women as Objects: The Sexual Body Part Recognition Bias.” European Journal of Social Psychology 42.6 (2012): 743-53. Web.

“Glass Ceiling.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Sept. 2018.

Puwar, Nirmal. Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg, 2004. Print

“She Coined the Term ‘Glass Ceiling.’ She Fears It Will Outlive Her.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 Mar. 2018,

Williams, Zoe. “The Glass Ceiling: a Metaphor That Needs to Be Smashed.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2016,

Film-maker Ava Duvernay said, in Time Firsts Women’s Leader’s response to the term ‘glass ceiling,” “I think a lot less about breaking down his door or shattering his own ceiling, more about building my own house.”

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