"Glass ceiling" is the term used to describe barriers that prevent women and minorities from advancing to management positions in corporations and organizations. The phrase was first used about 1985 or 1986. Statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) indicated that only 2 percent of top level management jobs and 5 percent of corporate board positions were held by women as of 1987. The failure of more women and minorities to crack the upper levels of corporate management is due to the glass ceiling. The Civil Rights Act of 1991 created a Glass Ceiling Commission to address these inequities, just as the Glass Ceiling Initiative, created in 1989 by the DOL under the leadership of Secretary Lynn Martin, had done.
Statistics prove beyond doubt that a glass ceiling existed long before the term was introduced. These barriers to minority progress had previously defied clear definition but, in the late 1980s, the glass ceiling became part of the language of management literature. Several articles in publications such as the Wall Street Journal detailed the increase of women in administrative and management level jobs, from 24 to 37 percent over a period from 1976 to 1987. Yet the glass ceiling blocked women from rising to top management positions as mentioned above. On March 24, 1986, a special 32-page section of the Wall Street Journal did much to define the glass ceiling for women. The inclusion of minorities would follow. This report did much to bring full light to the ceiling in the corporate world. Using interviews and data to highlight the issues, the Journal report was the first landmark publication of a powerful voice in employment equity. Another significant work was published in 1987. Sponsored by the Center for Creative Leadership and written by Ann Morrison, Breaking the Glass Ceiling synthesized the data and attitudes on the invisible barriers as well as outline the problems, provided a formula for success, and described the pattern of future progress in breaking the ceiling. The conclusions of the study pointed to few true differences between men and women in psychological, emotional, or intellectual qualities; but the study found that contradictions in the expectations for women were a major factor in the glass ceiling. Women were expected to be tough but not display "macho" characteristics; they were expected to take responsibility yet be obedient in following orders; and they were expected to be ambitious yet not to expect equal treatment. Also, the glass ceiling applied to women as a group, not just individuals.
DOL data supported the independent conclusions of the findings of the Center for Creative Leadership team and those of the Catalyst, a New York-based research organization that advised corporations on how to foster the careers of women. The DOL's analysis of 94 corporate headquarters of Fortune 1000 companies for a three-year period indicated that of a total of nearly 150,000 employees, 37.2 percent were women and 15.5 percent were minorities. Of 31,184 management-level employees, 5,278 (16.9 percent) were women and 1,885 (6 percent) were minorities. At the executive level, women represented only 6.6 percent and minorities an even smaller 2.6 percent. Other studies identified similar statistics, another factor that reinforced other findings and eventually led to greater DOL involvement. In a separate study, the Catalyst also identified a glass wall, a restriction on women's lateral mobility, so necessary for gaining relevant corporate experience. The organization studied employment and advancement trends for women in financial services, manufacturing, food and beverage industries, fashion retail merchandising, and high-technology corporations. Women face this glass wall early in their careers and miss opportunities for progressive training. Following the wall, the glass ceiling naturally limits upward advancement.
The glass ceiling spreads beyond the corporate environment. Among the first institutions to recognize the existence of the invisible barriers was the federal government. Recognition of dramatic changes in the economy and the workforce appeared in a formidable report published by the DOL in 1987. Workforce 2000 was a 117-page document that helped to increase awareness of the role of women and minorities; it also defined the so-called "glass ceiling" with its various barriers. Out of Workforce 2000 developed the Glass Ceiling Initiative, a DOL program intended to survey corporate America to identify the problems, causes, and solutions to the ceiling. The driving force behind the initiative was Elizabeth Dole, secretary of labor in the administration of President George Bush. The Glass Ceiling Initiative called for an investigation to begin in the fall of 1989. Nine Fortune 500 companies (representing a broad range of businesses) would be selected at random for review. Independent compliance reviews were conducted to explore the glass ceiling fully. Stated goals were to promote a diverse workforce; to promote corporate conduct conducive to cooperative problem solving; to promote equal opportunity; and, to establish a DOL blueprint for future reviews at all management levels. The department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) was charged with conducting the reviews.
The initiative had four major components: (1) educating DOL officials; (2) conducting reviews; (3) promoting efforts to remove barriers to minority advancement; and (4) rewarding contractors who demonstrated exemplary efforts. The program was designed to produce specific results—including identifying barriers, eliminating the problems, and increasing awareness of these barriers and the resulting discrimination. In February 1991 Lynn Martin replaced Elizabeth Dole and inherited the leadership of the Glass Ceiling Initiative. The first report from the extensive studies was issued on August 8, 1991.
None of the nine companies under review were cited for discriminatory practices, but a number of them failed to comply fully with all affirmative action requirements. The DOL realized that a review of such a small sample was not an especially scientific study but found ample evidence that the progress of women and minorities in management positions was blocked by considerably more than qualifications and career directions. The initiative found organizational and attitudinal barriers as strong obstacles to minority advancement. These barriers included three major categories. First was recruitment practices that centered on word-of-mouth and referral networking. Additionally, executive search firms and job referral firms used by the companies ignored many affirmative action/ equal employment opportunity requirements. Secondly, several career advancement opportunities were often unavailable to women and minorities. These included credential-building experiences such as advanced education, developmental practices, and assignments essential to career enhancement. The report went further to conclude that if there was not a glass ceiling, there was a point beyond which women and minorities had not advanced. Minority advancement was seen as more restrictive than that of women. Corporations generally ignored responsibility for monitoring equal access and opportunity for advancement as well as compensation systems. Research data did not generally support placement patterns and, finally, there was a serious lack of adequate record keeping. The report also found that the ceiling existed at a lower level than previously assumed. In summary, the barriers to advancement for women and minorities created a glass ceiling, and the DOL was determined to ensure promotion of advancement opportunities guaranteed by law.
Response to the Glass Ceiling Initiative was predictable—criticisms of flaws in methodology and the small sample size. But the DOL stood by the conclusions and urged change and compliance. Almost immediately, the department continued the compliance reviews in a second round of follow-up reviews. The report of this series of OFCCP, Pipelines of Progress, was published in August 1992. Pipelines of Progress had a good news/bad news approach—numbers of minorities and women participating in higher levels of management had shown an increase, but the future of change was still limited by the ever-present ceiling. Corporations had adopted diversity training and equal opportunity had received a renewed emphasis. Yet the same employers had failed to recruit for top management from a diverse candidate pool and had not provided training for minorities and women. Women with equal or superior educational attainments earned less on average than men in top level positions. Corporate leadership lacked a firm commitment to organizational responsibility for equal employment opportunity. Women expressed concern over access to mobility cited as necessary for climbing the corporate ladder and being held to different expectations of performance measures. Finally, Pipelines of Progress identified creative measures that worked. These included tracking the progress of women and minorities with advancement potential, ensuring equal access to corporate developmental opportunities, creating an environment for a bias-free workplace, and making a conscious effort to hire qualified women and minorities in entry-level professional positions. The DOL once again confirmed its commitment to identify and eliminate the glass ceiling.
In the same year, a second edition of Morrison's Breaking the Glass Ceiling was published, citing progress made in hurdling the barriers but still criticizing corrective measures not yet enacted. But the most significant event after the work of the Glass Ceiling Initiative was the passage of the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1991 that included legislation designated the Glass Ceiling Act of 1991. Sponsored by, among others, Kansas Senator Robert Dole, the Glass Ceiling Act followed up on the initial findings of the initiative by creating the Glass Ceiling Commission.
Taking impetus from the Glass Ceiling Initiative, the Glass Ceiling Commission was established to study how businesses filled management and decision-making positions, corporate policies intended to provide career- and skill-enhancing opportunities, and current compensation programs and packages. The purpose of the studies was to develop recommendations aimed at eliminating the barriers to furthering the careers of women and minorities—simply stated, to break the glass ceiling. Almost unnoticed were two facts: that there was increased awareness of the glass ceiling and that the U.S. Congress had admitted that there was a glass ceiling. Membership of the commission included 21 members—6 appointed by the President, 6 more selected by a joint decision of the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader, 1 member each appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate, and 2 House and 2 Senate members; it was chaired by the secretary of labor. Consideration was given to appointing representatives of women's and minority organizations, business leaders recognized as having positive attitudes on equal employment opportunity, and academics or others with expertise on employment issues, all intended to create a workable balance. The commission was to hold at least five open meetings in order to hear from a broad constituency base. These meetings were set up for the purpose of information gathering on all employment issues affecting women and men. The commission had no subpoena power, but information from federal agencies was made available for its use. Consultants and experts could be utilized within the budgetary power of the commission. The act set a date of 15 months for submission of a report to the president and Congress but at the same time gave the commission a four-year life span. Considering the past history of a lack of sympathetic understanding and awareness of the employment concerns of women and minorities, establishment of the Glass Ceiling Commission was indeed a remarkable event.
Even before the initial commission meeting, the scope of the body became more clearly defined. First, the promotion of workforce diversity was considered to be part of the group's function. As interviews for commission members proceeded, the task was expanded to include small and medium-sized businesses and a working relationship with the Small Business Administration (SBA). Small business operations employed 54.3 million Americans. Statistics showed that women had started new businesses at twice the rate of men in the late 20th century, an indirect benefit of the glass ceiling to women in business. Black-owned businesses had grown by about 40 percent, those owned by Hispanic Americans by 80 percent, and Asian American-owned businesses had increased more than 90 percent. Pipelines of Progress had identified a trend that women and minorities were judged on what they had done, while men were evaluated on what they could do. The findings of the Glass Ceiling Initiative combined with the data and various hypotheses as the basis for the work of the commission.
By September 1992 commission members appointed included blacks, women, a Hispanic American, and Henry Tang, an Asian American and vice president of Solomon Brothers in New York. Two of the more outspoken members were Carol Cox Wait, president and chief executive officer of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and head of a consulting group, and J. Alphonso Brown, founder of Brown Consulting Group. Senator Dole was also a member. Prior to the first commission session, Secretary of Labor Martin, as chair, sought input from the management of media outlets such as the New York Times Company, Time Inc., and 20 college presidents. She also indicated a third round of OFCCP compliance reviews would target a media organization and an institution of higher education.
The initial meeting was held in Washington on October 2. Brown immediately questioned the balance, whereby women's issues outweighed minority concerns. Before an audience of mostly white women, Martin assured him the commission would attempt to be sensitive to all groups. Tang warned of the far-reaching economic impact of the effects of the glass ceiling. Future meeting sites included Kansas City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York, with others possible. In November compliance reviews were expanded to include health care providers, financial services institutions, and law firms. Following the presidential election of 1992, Martin resigned her cabinet post; in the new administration of President Bill Clinton, the new Secretary of Labor Robert Reich named Joyce Miller as executive director of the Glass Ceiling Commission in April 1993. Miller had previously been vice president and director of social services for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, and she aggressively continued to expand the commission's focus. In June a wider range of jobs other than top management positions was added to the studies, especially those at the "mud floor," or dead-end, low-status, low-wage jobs.
Other agencies and organizations held their own hearings or conferences on the glass ceiling. In June 1993 the Small Business Committee in Congress scheduled a hearing and, at the Women's National Democratic Club the same month in Washington, a glass ceiling forum met with more revelations about women in employment. For many women, stereotypes about female employees, which led to a narrow band of acceptable behavior for women, and differences in their work-related learning patterns contributed to the ceiling. A survey showed that a greater percentage of women had a stronger tendency toward personal development than men, but more emphasis was needed in technical styles of learning. These and other conclusions moved the ceiling beyond awareness and toward household recognition. Awareness was seldom mentioned again as a problem.
The first commission meeting under President Clinton was held in late June 1993. In addition to reiterating a commitment to eliminating barriers, the commission recognized a subtle but meaningful change, based on the premise that the glass ceiling was built first and lower for minorities than for women. The wording of the phrase women and minorities was altered to minorities and women to reflect this emphasis.
A pivotal hearing was held in Dallas in early December. Covenants were introduced as a new strategy for penetrating and breaking the ceiling. The covenant was a corporate organizational agreement to disclose how women and minorities were advancing into top management positions. The city government of Dallas had encouraged over 200 businesses with contracts with the city to go public in relation to minority advancement, and a women's covenant was the next target. Mentoring programs were cited as a working solution to minority advancement. Other directions included summer intern programs for minorities and women as well as recruiting at traditionally African American universities and colleges. While noting slow progress, the commission heard from a broad range of businesses, from professional basketball to law firms. Commission members did agree on one key ingredient to success—commitment from top management. In a posthearing interview, director Miller pointed to solutions, not the problem. She said the focus had changed since initial DOL involvement to include anyone who wanted to move up in the workforce. Native Americans and disabled workers were part of the focus. Since 64 percent of new entrants into the job market were women or minorities, the ceiling would eliminate a great many talents and abilities of a large army of workers. Only a diversity program would ensure the breaking down of barriers in employment—what Miller termed "smart business." Although uncertain that new legislative proposals would develop out of the commission's report, she did cite the need for increased enforcement.
The April 1994 hearing was held in Cleveland, where the commission was told that shattering the glass ceiling was indeed a daunting task. One witness reported that the barriers were stronger than ever in retailing. Engineering was seen as another area where progress lagged far behind expectations. Minorities and women hired at the same entry-level pay as men rapidly fell behind in a field (engineering) dominated by paternalistic attitudes. Evidence was introduced that there was no equity in professional sports. The OFCCP deputy director pointed out that generally chief executive officers now understood the goal and that compliance reviews would number 40 in 1994 with an equal number primed for 1995.
In June 1994 Miller resigned as executive director to become an adviser on health-care reform to Labor Secretary Reich. Rene Redwood was named the new director. Redwood's prior experience included work as a consultant and district office director to District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. At the commission's August meeting in Atlanta, Redwood announced that the commission would report by January 1,1995. She commented that the report would be pragmatic and implementable and would not be shelved away to ignore. At the final meeting in September, Secretary Reich repeated earlier statements that the elimination of the glass ceiling had to start at the top of organizations. He compared the ceiling to the imposing architectural presence of the Capitol Dome in Washington. Despite the series of open forums and various testimonies representing numerous minority interests, many members of the Glass Ceiling Commission felt that they still lacked substantial information necessary for their report to Congress on the causes of discrimination. Member Carol Cox Wait expressed concern over wasting three million taxpayer dollars by failing to identify the root causes of the problem. Tang agreed, citing the lack of new knowledge. Several commission members wanted to retain the January 1995 reporting date, but still be able to provide additional materials and information at a later time.
During the fall of 1994, several important judgments against perpetrators of the glass ceiling were announced. In September, Georgia Power, Marriott International, and WordPerfect Corp. agreed to pay a total of nearly $500,000 to 68 women and minority employees who were paid a lower wage than others doing comparable work. The Atlanta-based Georgia Power agreed to pay more than $210,000 to 23 individuals, Marriott awarded $167,000 to 40 top-level staff members, and WordPerfect made payments of approximately $140,000 to just five employees. These awards followed upon a September 1993 settlement of almost $600,000 paid to a group of 52 women by Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia. Another significant jury award in November 1994 paid $343,000 to a woman employed by Hondo Inc., of Chicago, a franchisee of Coca-Cola Co. The woman, an 18-year manager with Hondo, had been passed over for promotions on numerous occasions and was, as her attorney concluded, a victim of the "old boys network."
On March 8, 1995, the commission voted to accept the final report. Nineteen members voted in the affirmative, one did not indicate a vote, and another withdrew from the commission due to time constraints. The report, Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital, was released on March 16. Criticisms of the ceiling dominated the report, which indicated that 60 percent of the country's population is represented in 7 percent of the jobs. The report labeled progress discouragingly slow despite recognition by America's corporate leadership of the existence of a glass ceiling, a ceiling the final report characterized as firmly in place as a barrier to the advancement of women and minorities in upper management positions at three levels—government, business, and society. Minorities and women expressed dismay and anger at the ceiling, despite corporate promises to correct the problems. In order to provide positive examples of breaking the glass ceiling, the report included brief descriptions of dozens of practices used by some companies to advance minorities and women.
The initial report was disappointing to the extent that recommendations were not included. The Glass Ceiling Commission, after four years, still faced the task of agreeing on recommendations to eliminate the barriers. But the subsequent events of 1995 did not bring a consensus among commission members until November. In June the Glass Ceiling Commission met in Williamsburg to develop draft recommendations and to address the "women only" concept, which ignored blacks. The commission surprised no one with the finding that 97 percent of senior managers at Fortune 1000 industrials and Fortune 500 companies are white or that 95 to 97 percent are male. The fact that the remaining 3 to 5 percent are white females further reinforced the decision to group blacks with women as those affected by the ceiling. Commission members fell short of agreement on recommendations at the Williamsburg session but did produce a working copy of proposals and recommendations. The proposals included grouping women and blacks as victims of discrimination and the elimination of what were referred to as" twofers," or black women counting in two categories—blacks and women—of those climbing the management ladder. More radical among the commission proposals was a call to require the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to disclose the race and ethnicity as well as the salary of all board members and officers of publicly held companies. Other proposals centered on a media campaign to present the positive aspects of women in the workplace and to hold a national conference annually to promote and discuss glass ceiling ideas and progress.
The draft recommendations that were developed were sweeping generalizations such as eliminating the use of the word "minority" and providing sensitivity training in the educational system. Others called for zero tolerance of stereotyping and discrimination in the workplace, and for the selection of executives committed to diversity. Another recommendation was that incentives tied to breaking the glass ceiling should be related to salary. Educational targets included incorporating the concept of diversity in business school programs, reflecting more diversity in internship programs, and using community business leaders as role models in the schools. The general feeling was that there was little chance for reaching agreement on any recommendations. A June meeting was planned.
June turned into July and the commission met in Washington, D.C., on July 21 and 22. Again, there was little accord on recommendations, but there was consensus on several fronts. Commission attempts to address affirmative action were relieved in part by President Clinton's endorsement of affirmative action on the day prior to the commission meeting. There was agreement on the need to review the Equal Pay Act and update OFCCP guidelines to reflect 15 years of change since the program began. The issue of the SEC releasing gender and race information on officers and board members still created a split among commission members. By the end of August 1995, the commission had backed away from the SEC issue, and a draft list of recommendations was circulating among its members. The commission did develop a clear definition of affirmative action: "Affirmative Action is about opening up the system to all and providing a climate where everyone has a chance to succeed according to their efforts and abilities." The commission also encouraged retaining women and minorities when companies downsized.
On November 22, 1995, the final report was released. Entitled A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital, the report included 12 recommendations, 8 aimed at businesses and the rest at the federal government. Most were predictable but the simple fact that the recommendations were now in final form and ready for publication was a relief to the commission. Several business leaders, consulting firms, and women's advocacy groups reacted with a mixture of approval, relief, and concern.
The recommendations were sweeping generalities but all pointed to the necessity of shattering the glass ceiling. The report urged business and the government to work hand-in-hand to increase public awareness of information on race and gender in the workforce. The federal government was called on to "end systematic discrimination" by bringing pattern-and-practice class action suits and expanding the investigation of federal contractors.
The eight recommendations targeted at business predictably included the recruitment and training of women and minorities and the incorporation of diversity into strategic planning. The commission recommended that corporate executives be educated about the strengths and weaknesses of a diverse workforce and the challenges the future of the workplace presented. Corporations were encouraged to initiate family-friendly policies and adopt high performance standards for employees. All companies were also encouraged to release data related to the gender and ethnicity of their officers and board members. These recommendations did not represent new thinking in the eyes of most observers but their incorporation into a report to the president did lend legitimacy to the commission's findings.
Government recommendations included looking for ways to increase access to diversity data; updating antidiscrimination policies to reflect current workplace and social trends, practices, and laws; and closely examining those OFCCP practices that were hindering the hiring and advancement of minorities and women. A final commission recommendation focused on government agencies that collected data on gender and race, calling on them to discontinue the practice of double counting, whereby a black woman was listed in two categories—by race and by sex.
A sampling of reactions from several affected and interested groups indicates a mixed review. The collection of data, which was not clearly specified, and some of the final recommendations aimed at the federal government would require legislation. The business recommendations were generally consistent with current practices and policies and did not represent any realistic long-term solutions. Edwin Bowman of Organization Resources Counselors, Inc. called the recommendations balanced, realistic, and good blueprints for action. Kelly Jenkins of the National Committee on Pay Equity felt the release of gender and race information for upper level management personnel was useless without accompanying salary data. Nancy Kreiter of Chicago-based Women Employed approved of the report and its greater use of affirmative action and the enforcement of discrimination laws. Gary D. Browne, director of equality programs at New York's Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, was disappointed with the mild nature of the recommendations. Browne was especially critical when it came to the OFCCP, feeling that the recommendations did little to strengthen its role. Overall, only time will tell if the final commission recommendations prove effective.
Since the Glass Ceiling Commission issued its recommendations, several events help to illustrate the level of commitment to breaking the barriers facing women and minorities in employment. Although these selected instances do not represent a sweeping change in corporate practices and attitudes, they are examples of how some employers have responded to diversity, discrimination, and promotion issues. In January 1986 a Richmond health carrier, Trigon Blue Cross/Blue Shield, agreed to pay more than $500,000 to minority applicants and women employees under an OFCCP settlement. The Miami Herald received a glass ceiling award, the Francis Perkins/Elizabeth Hanford Dole National Award for Diversity and Excellence in American Executive Management. Announced in March 1996, the award was given for the newspaper's sustained commitment to promoting women and minorities. Unfortunately, it was the last Perkins/Dole Award granted.
Nearly a year after the commission recommendations were announced, Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advertising organization supported by corporations, professional firms, and nonprofit foundations, published the Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners. The report concluded that only 57 of 2,430 top corporate titled positions were held by women and that only 50 (2 percent) of the top corporate earners were women. A December 1997 study by the International Labor Organization concluded that internationally, more women were in middle management positions but the glass ceiling still denied promotions to top positions. Women in Canada and the United States had fared better than most in the world, and the report was especially critical of Japan and the countries of the European Union. Finally, a study completed for the United States Postal Service (USPS) applauded USPS diversity efforts but concluded that the glass ceiling still exists. National trends still support the findings of the USPS study.
For women and minorities, the glass ceiling is still a barrier to jobs in middle and upper management. Like many government commissions, the Glass Ceiling Commission spent considerable time, money, and effort providing guidelines for businesses and government agencies in breaking the glass ceiling. Unfortunately, too little has happened to stop trends that block upward mobility for many Americans in the workplace, and the glass ceiling remains firmly in place as an obstacle to advancement for women and minorities.
[ Boyd Childress ]
Bureau of National Affairs. Daily Labor Report. Washington: Bureau of National Affairs, 1990-1999.
Catalyst Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners. Catalyst Corp., 1996.
Moore, Dorothy P. Women Entrepreneurs: Moving Beyond the Glass Ceiling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997.
Morrison, Ann M., and others. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations? Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1987.
——. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America's Largest Corporations? 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992.
Stith, Anthony. Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Racism and Sexism in Corporate America. Orange, NJ: Bryant & Dillon, 1996.
U.S. Department of Labor. Pipelines of Progress: An Update on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. Washington: GPO, 1992.
——. A Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. Washington: GPO, 1991.
U.S. Employment Standards Administration. The Glass Ceiling Initiative: Are There Cracks in the Glass Ceiling? Washington: GPO, 1997.
U.S. Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital. Washington: GPO, 1995.
——. A Solid Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital: Recommendations of the Glass Ceiling Commission. Washington: GPO, 1995. Available from www.ilr.comell.edu/library/e_archive/glassceiling/Recommend2.pdf .