A graphic for the defintion of the Glass Ceiling

What is it and why is it important for women?

There is some dispute about the origin of the term. Some point to Marilyn Loden coining it in 1978, whilst others cite Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schelhardt in 1986. But most agree on the definition: the unseen barriers that prevent women from reaching senior leadership positions, particularly in corporate workplaces. This term has become common in gender discourse as the Glass Ceiling still prevails, despite increased coverage of structural challenges for women in work.

For non-white women, the ceiling is not just glass; it’s opaque and almost impenetrable. In recent discourse, the ‘Concrete Ceiling’ phenomenon describes the additional barriers preventing women of colour from reaching senior leadership positions. Research from UK Universities has explored how Black women navigate workplaces at the intersection of gender bias and racial bias. It explored the challenges they face with few workplace role models who also experience these intersections, because leaders of companies remain overwhelmingly white, middle-class men, and they often set and lead the culture of organisations.

In 2015 it was noticed that in the FTSE 100 companies, the 100 most prominent organisations in the Financial Times Stock Exchange, there were more men with the name John (17) or David (14) as CEOs or Chairs than the sum of just seven women leaders. In 2018 in Australia there were also more Johns and Peters in Chair positions than the total number of women chairing boards, and more Andrews as CEOs than the 12 female CEOs. Although work has begun to tackle this, the trend persists. In 2022 out of the 173 CEOs measured in the FTSE 250, 97% were men (equating to 168, including 7 seven named John), and just 3% were women, equating to 5 women leaders.

Whilst there has been some progress towards levelling the professional playing fields, women continue to face many hurdles in breaking through the Glass and (the even more challenging) Concrete Ceilings.

Related Concepts

Second Generation Bias  

Sticky Floor 

Related Reading

Reading ‘Women’s Progression in the Workplace’ will help to develop understanding around the career barriers women face, as well as ‘When Women Lead, Firms Win’.

Related Resources

ECC’s explainer on ‘Why there are so few women in leadership roles’ expands on the barriers facing women in progressing in their careers.

Click here to learn more about Women’s Development Programmes: 6 Lessons from Designing Women’s Development Programmes

Click here to learn more about Inclusive Leadership: Intro to Developing Inclusive Leaders