• Cheek

What the F is: The glass ceiling (and more)

Updated: Jan 19

Before you start: In these definitions, we have used women as the examples as each theory was developed in regards to women in the workplace. Most theories can be applied to demographic groups other than women, notably marginalised groups.


Glass ceiling

The glass ceiling refers to an invisible barrier that keeps women from being promoted or accepted into higher-ranking roles in a workplace. The reason it was labelled ‘glass’ is to illustrate it’s invisibility and transparency. Women can see the jobs, but they cannot access them. It was also named after glass to show that it is invisible, namely that people who are unaffected can’t see it. East Asian newspapers have also coined the term ‘bamboo ceiling’, which relates to people of East Asian heritage who experience the same situations, and some also use the term ‘canvas ceiling’, which refers to refugees.


An example

A woman successfully gains an entry-level job in a corporate workplace. She remains at the workplace for several years, and applies for promotions when they arise. She is completely capable and qualified to undertake the promoted positions, but she is never successful. Men who entered the workplace at a similar time and with matching skills and qualifications are given the promotions over her.


Photo by Christina via Unsplash

Glass cliff

The glass cliff theory refers to when companies (or governments) put women in leadership positions when the company or government is in a precarious or downturning position. What almost always happens is that the woman will have been placed at the helm too late to make any positive changes, and the company or government will continue to worsen until it comes to a gruesome end (ie. falls off the glass cliff). Following this, the woman is usually removed from the position with the blame. This adds ammunition to the argument that women ‘can’t’ do the job, and the company or government is unlikely to have another woman in charge for quite some time.


An example

The UK’s Theresa May was elected as Prime Minister in 2016 after citizens voted for Brexit and the incumbent PM David Cameron was unable to navigate the mess it caused. Theresa May was handed a huge problem that she didn’t cause (Brexit), and was ousted three years later after the country continued to decline.


Glass elevator

The glass elevator is referred to when men are put on a fast track to promotion and/or higher positions when they enter careers predominantly dominated by women, ie. pink collar work, like teaching, childcare, and nursing. Pink collar workers are usually paid less than typically male-dominated careers, however the glass elevator refers to men who enter pink collar jobs and out-earn their women counterparts.


An example

According to this SBS article, 83.33% of Australian teachers are women, however ACER reports that only 40% of school principals are women.


Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Glass wall

The glass wall represents a barrier that prevents women from gaining a job that will allow them the opportunity to get promoted and move upwards. Unlike the glass ceiling, the glass wall refers to sideways movement, which will limit any opportunity for a woman to even have a chance at promotion. For workers who are women and part of a marginalised group, some refer to the ‘concrete wall’, which implies that the wall is stronger and less penetrable for some.


An example

A woman is offered a job in a company that is not in a typical team, as she is the executive assistant for three people. There are no equivalent or similar roles in the company, nor is there a path for promotion. The woman is ‘stuck’ in this position unless she decides to leave the company to pursue another role.


Sticky floor

The sticky floor describes employers who implement and follow discriminatory employment practices that keep women in entry- or low-level jobs. The jobs most affected by the sticky floor are pink collar positions mostly held by women. Almost half of the working women in the US hold clerical or service jobs, compared to one sixth of men. Jobs accessible to women, particularly working class, poor, or marginalised women, are service jobs like hospitality.


An example

A woman gains a hospitality position after being unsuccessful in seeking an office job. Over the years, her male counterparts are promoted to management positions within the hospitality industry, or go on to get the office jobs she was not offered, despite having the same level of skill and experience.