What is the Glass Ceiling and Why Do We Need to Break It?

The glass ceiling is an obstacle to women's equality in the workplace that hinders their progress and fulfillment. What is it and why does it need to be broken? We'll tell you here.
What is the Glass Ceiling and Why Do We Need to Break It?
Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fatima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 11 May, 2023

Why is it that there are only two women and eight men on an average board of directors? Why is it that when we have to leave a child in the care of a relative we assume that it will be the grandmother or aunt? Why are there more men than women in science and technology? The glass ceiling explains this.

The answer lies in gender biases, which incline people to think that certain skills or abilities are inherent to men or women, as if they were innate and not susceptible to development. Such biases are prejudices based on stereotypes and, therefore, discriminatory.

One of these concrete forms of discrimination is through the so-called glass ceiling, an invisible boundary (although it often seems quite palpable) that’s present in organizational and labor realities. Let’s take a look at what it is.

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What is the glass ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a category created to account for the situation experienced by women in the workplace – that is, the limitations based on gender prejudices and stereotypes when it comes to achieving promotion and occupying positions of hierarchy, power, or greater responsibility.

These are invisible barriers that offer greater resistance and difficulty. They’re difficult to recognize and even more difficult to change, since they’re present in the collective social imaginary and not only in business or labor.

These are some of the prejudices that are at the base of gender stereotypes and roles:

  • Women are more sensitive and emotional than men and therefore lack the skills to manage and lead teams.
  • Women don’t know how to do business; they don’t know about finances.
  • Women are better suited to take care of their children.

Companies reproduce social models that perpetuate the exclusion of women from decision-making positions. They’re allowed access up to certain work levels, but they can’t advance in their careers.

In what actions can we notice the glass ceiling?

If we talk about the glass ceiling referring to invisible barriers or obstacles or those that operate implicitly, then we must point to the practices that go unnoticed. Let’s take a look at some examples:

  • When news, budget allocations, support, or participation in projects are decided in informal meetings in activities that a woman can’t attend.
  • When it’s difficult for a woman to take on care work at the same time as being a full-time worker. For example, when we don’t accompany them with helpful maternity policies or with leaves that are in accordance with the reality of family life, leading in one way or another to the fact that they have to choose. Need some daily situations for an example? Think of when a woman who’s a mother doesn’t have breastfeeding facilities in her office or work policies that are friendly to parenting or caregiving. It’s worth asking whether men also have to choose. If the answer is no, prejudice is at work.
  • When men are paid more than women for equal work.
  • Workplace harassment and bullying are also a brake on women’s growth. It’s also evident in comments and thoughts related to promotion, the close or intimate relationship she has with her superior, and malicious gossip that calls a woman’s talent into question.
  • Also, the glass ceiling is visible when the descriptions of a job are consistent with a male profile, in such a way that male candidates are always more suitable than women.

Why is it important to break the glass ceiling?

The glass ceiling sustains discrimination and, as such, injustice. It blocks opportunities for many women around the world while limiting their potential and development.

It’s also important to end this situation because it affects women’s economic autonomy, which changes their living conditions. Gender gaps at the labor level make it so that women work in sectors of the informal economy; they may be able to get a job, but with precarious and non-formalized salaries. They may also find themselves in the so-called sticky floor jobs – i.e., those with difficulties in getting off the ground.

On the other hand, the glass ceiling doesn’t go unnoticed and the teaching it conveys is clear: women are not suitable for certain jobs. If there are no female referents in certain fields (for example, in technology and information disciplines), then it must be that it’s not a place for them.

This is something that girls and boys internalize at an early age. It becomes even more solid from the age of 6 onwards. In the long run, it also influences their choices as adults.

Niña en el campo con alumnos de escuela.
Children internalize gender concepts from an early age. An education that considers this will help to modify the glass ceiling.

Children internalize concepts about gender from a young age. An education that considers this will help to modify the glass ceiling.

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“They’ve already achieved many things in recent years”

We must be very careful with the justifications or ideas that circulate around women, their achievements, and their rights. It’s very common to hear that the situation of women has changed recently and that better times will come.

While it’s true that we are witnessing a time of change; however, the question is why we should ever stop fighting for it. Why equal rights, not equal possibilities? That is to say: today many women (not all!) have joined the labor market, but there’s a limit to their growth and fulfillment.

No one should doubt that women are capable of being leaders, of taking on responsibilities, or of occupying high positions. Organizations should be able to promote diversity among their staff, as such diversity enriches, increases creativity, and promotes talent. In short, it’s about promoting equality.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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  • Roig, A. E., & Hurtado, M. J. R. (2007). La brecha digital: género y juegos de ordenador. REICE. Revista Iberoamericana sobre Calidad, Eficacia y Cambio en Educación5(1), 63-77.
  • Piedra, J., García-Pérez, R., Fernández-García, E., & Rebollo, M. A. (2014). Brecha de género en educación física: actitudes del profesorado hacia la igualdad. Revista Internacional de Medicina y Ciencias de la Actividad Física y del Deporte/International Journal of Medicine and Science of Physical Activity and Sport14(53), 1-21.
  • Reina, M. D. C. M., & Cea, M. V. (2009). Actitud en niños y adultos sobre los estereotipos de género en juguetes infantiles. CIENCIA ergo-sum, Revista Científica Multidisciplinaria de Prospectiva16(2), 137-144.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.