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Glass Ceiling Theory in Sociology: Definition & Barriers

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  • 0:02 What Is a Glass Ceiling?
  • 1:24 Who Developed the Term?
  • 2:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

This lesson defines the term 'glass ceiling' and gives examples of how this term is used within the corporate world. It also gives indications of when this term was first used in the United States.

What Is a Glass Ceiling?

The phrase 'glass ceiling' refers to an invisible barrier that prevents someone from achieving further success. It is most often used in the context of someone's age, gender, or ethnicity keeping them from advancing to a certain point in a business or when he or she cannot or will not be promoted to a higher level of position/power. Glass ceilings are most often observed in the workplace and are usually a barrier to achieving power and success equal to that of a more dominant population. An example would be a woman who has better skills, talent, and education than her male peers but is obviously being passed over for promotions.

The glass ceiling metaphor in the business world is a reference to an employee's rise up the ranks of an organization. In theory, nothing prevents a woman from being promoted, but women can see that the higher they are in the company, the more promotions, pay raises, and opportunities they should have. Instead of being able to achieve the same success as peers, those who encounter glass ceilings are stopped by invisible obstacles that prevent them from rising further.

The frustrating thing about this kind of oppression is that it is covert and cannot be seen. Instead of being a tangible barrier that would be easy to identify, a glass ceiling in the workplace persists in very subtle ways.

Who Developed the Term 'Glass Ceiling'?

In the 1960s, racism and sexism in the workplace were common, frequent, and accepted. For example, even the classified ads listings for men's jobs and women's jobs were separate. However, by the 80s, people were beginning to see that such discrimination was not okay.

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