Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Overcoming Invisible Barriers to Success

Breaking the Glass Ceiling - Overcoming Invisible Barriers to Success

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Don't let who you are allow others to limit your horizons.

Great strides have been made toward equality in the workplace. But, even today, many people find that they're unfairly blocked from advancing their careers.

They may be ideal candidates for promotion, with relevant qualifications, experience, and "can-do" attitudes – but time and again they see less competent co-workers overtake them, or are overlooked for senior positions.

They've hit the glass ceiling. In this article, we explore what the glass ceiling is, and we look at what individuals and organizations can do to smash it!

What Is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a metaphor for the invisible barrier that prevents some people from rising to senior positions.

It's a subtle but damaging form of discrimination, where you cannot take the opportunities you see in front of you – despite your suitability and your best efforts. Crucially, this "failure" is not the result of a lack of skills and experience, or because you haven't tried hard enough.

The glass ceiling is most often associated with women at work – research suggests that women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male co-workers.

The term is applied to minority groups, too, but it goes beyond issues of gender and ethnicity. It can affect people from all walks of life for a range of reasons. Let's consider these examples:

  • The knowledgeable and skilled female executive who is denied a promotion because of her gender, because men in her organization are traditionally viewed as more "suitable" leaders.
  • The highly experienced software developer who is rejected for a role by a start-up business because, at 52, he's far older than the mostly Millennial workforce, and bosses feel that he might not "fit in."
  • The bright law graduate who is refused an internship at a prestigious law firm because she doesn't have the "right upbringing."

All seem to be ideal candidates, but they are held back by long-standing traditions, biases, and beliefs about what the "right" candidate looks like – the glass ceiling.

Chances are, having their career progressions blocked like this could leave them feeling confused, disorientated, depressed, or isolated. They may feel mistrust, anger or resentment, and start to doubt themselves.

But glass ceilings negatively impact organizations, too. Studies have shown that diversity is often the key to innovation, growth and higher revenue.


Another phenomenon to be wary of is the "glass cliff." This refers to how "non-traditional" leaders tend to be promoted to senior positions where there is a high likelihood of failure.

For example, research suggests that women and people from ethnic minorities are more often promoted to CEO positions in organizations that are in decline.

Why Do Glass Ceilings Exist?

Glass ceilings are often the result of unconscious bias – instinctive, underlying beliefs about ethnicity, gender, age, sexuality, social class, religion, and so on. This may be largely unintentional.

However, in some cases, glass ceilings have become a systemic problem – an inherent part of company culture, but one that many organizations turn a blind eye to. Elsewhere, glass ceilings are intentional, showing up as overt discrimination or bullying, as a form of "power play."

In these instances, people "at the top" may deny that a glass ceiling exists, because they haven't experienced it themselves. Or, they fear that acknowledging it would threaten their positions. Either way, they'll likely want to preserve the status quo.


The discriminatory nature of the glass ceiling is one of the reasons cited for women being more likely than men to work in positions below their level of competence. This phenomenon has been dubbed "The Paula Principle" by researcher and author Tom Schuller.

Other contributing factors identified by Schuller include the challenge of Combining Parenthood and Work, and positive choices based around work-life balance.

Mind Tools Corporate users and Premium members of the Mind Tools Club can listen to a detailed discussion with Schuller in our Expert Interview.

Three Ways to Smash the Glass Ceiling!

The glass ceiling is a difficult problem to tackle, but it's not impossible. Here are three strategies for doing so.

1. Recognize That It Exists

To break a glass ceiling, you first have to know that it's there. This can be difficult when it's likely disguised as culture or tradition. There are, however, signs to show that one may exist in your organization:

  • The phrase "that's just the way things are done here" is used to justify appointments or decisions.
  • There's little diversity at the top.
  • Atypical leaders model their behavior on that of "typical" leaders, altering their management styles or taking up new activities to "fit in."
  • Sexist, racist, or other prejudicial language is common across the organization, but people excuse it as "banter."
  • There's resistance to innovation and change, especially over the long term.
  • There are illogical pay gaps between different groups of employees.
  • Fast-track career programs are in place for minority groups, but few participants progress. (These programs are often a genuine effort to redress an imbalance, but some are intended to demonstrate equality, without creating it.)
  • It's hard for employees to get senior leaders' time, and there are limited opportunities for mentoring from senior personnel.

2. What You Can Do as an Employee

The first thing to realize is that the glass ceiling is no reflection of your value as a person or as an employee. The very nature of glass ceilings means that even if you've positioned yourself to meet every demand of a role, you'll still be denied the opportunity.

So, we assume here that you understand and have the key competencies and self-confidence required for the upper levels of your organization, but that you are still being denied advancement.

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Let's explore some actions that you can take to reach the top:

  • Channel your frustration into purposeful action. Experiencing or witnessing the impact of a glass ceiling can leave you feeling frustrated, depressed, or angry at the injustice. Use this passion as a catalyst for action, but don't allow it to control your behavior.
  • Develop your awareness of the issue. Learn more about where glass ceilings exist in your business, who they affect and how. The better you understand the issue, the more opportunities you'll identify to promote change.
  • Raise your concerns. If you believe that there's a glass ceiling in your organization, but your managers don't realize it (or, worse, they deny it), speak up or tell them (appropriately) that they're in the wrong. This makes it harder for others to ignore the issue, and you may find important allies.
  • Be patient, but assertive. Dismantling a glass ceiling will take time, but check in regularly with your manager to see what progress is being made. Don't allow those at the top to "park" or forget the issue.
  • Take responsibility for your own development. If you're not being given the opportunities that you feel you deserve in your current situation, it might be time to seek them elsewhere.

3. Actions Your Organization Can Take

As a manager, your role in helping your organization to dismantle glass ceilings is critical. But without the input of senior leaders, change will be far harder.

Below, we explore some strategies for encouraging organizational change.

First, you need to open a dialogue about the issue. This can mean having some difficult conversations, and it requires honest introspection from senior leaders. Have they done anything, inadvertently or otherwise, that may have sabotaged people's progression? Do they fear "losing out" themselves if the organization becomes more inclusive? Do they worry that it will affect performance?

Encourage open conversations about these issues, and see where they lead. There may be a backlash, but you can counter this by stressing that change needn't be threatening. It should simply allow those who deserve opportunities to access them, regardless of gender, race, or any other factor.

Ask your team members for their views. You may discover important facts and suggestions for improvement by asking people about their experiences.

Next, encourage your organization to recognize and challenge bias. You can learn more about this in our article, Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work.

A key action is to review your recruitment and promotion practices. These are the areas where the glass ceiling is most commonly imposed. Conduct a "deep dive" into your current practices and consider how they may be affecting different groups' chances of progression.

Support your teams to reach their goals. You can do this through mentoring, skills assessments, encouraging innovation, helping people to find their allies (or to become one), and raising their profiles.

The overall focus should be on promoting diversity: diversity of ideas, diversity of perspectives, and diversity of innovation.


Mind Tools Club and Corporate users can listen to our Expert Interviews with Natalie Holder-Winfield, about her book, "Exclusion: Strategies for Improving Diversity in Recruitment, Retention and Promotion," and with Sally Helgesen about her book "How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job."

Key Points

The term "glass ceiling" refers to the way that some groups of people are held back in their careers by traditions, biases and the status quo.

To break the glass ceiling, you first have to identify it. Look for warning signs such as a lack of diversity in leadership roles, inappropriate comments, and a lack of innovation.

Individuals can tackle the problem by learning more about it, raising their concerns, and taking responsibility for their own development.

Organizations can take action by honestly exploring whether a glass ceiling exists, asking employees for their views, investing in unconscious bias training, and offering support to employees.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (13)
  • Over a month ago Claire wrote
    when was this article written please?
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi Onomen,

    Thank you for your feedback on the article. As the article points out, while there have been gains in the numbers of people who were formerly underrepresented in senior positions, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Carefully managing your career will help you to better navigate the management channels.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Onomen wrote
    Great post. What I needed to learn at this time of my career. A lot to learn to move ahead.
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