Breaking the Glass Ceiling: How Law Can Help

Imagine working in a place where you have to keep ideas to yourself for fear of sounding too forward, too bold, or just downright crazy. You are always walking on eggshells because higher-ups have stringent rules that sometimes do not make sense. Maybe you have a coworker who is taunted regularly for being a devout Christian or a colleague who gets judged by other teammates for her gender.


Maybe top management thinks that a particular employee has the skills and experience but won’t have authority over team members in the future because of certain qualities he/she possesses. This is a clear indication of the glass ceiling effect that permeates most private and government organizations. 

What exactly is the “glass ceiling,” and how can the law help its victims? Read on to find out. 


What is a glass ceiling?

Glass ceiling refers to the invisible upper limit in organizations, corporations, and even politics where qualified people, largely made up of women and minorities, cannot seem to get through to rise through the ranks. The term “glass ceiling” was popularized in the 1980s and first used in a 1984 Adweek article, quoting Working Woman former editor Gay Bryant.

Informal barriers are hard to detect in the workplace, and this is what makes them “invisible” to the naked eye, like a “glass.” The glass ceiling effect covers the limitations and obstacles experienced by minorities—whether based on sex, race, gender, religion, disability, or any other trait that puts the person in the minority group.  


Why does the glass ceiling exist? 

Gender discrepancies abound in the workplace, and they are usually hard to spot until a major situation arises. The fact that the gender wage gap persists worldwide—even in Iceland, a country that ranked first out of 144 nations when it comes to establishing gender equality—means that we still have a long way to go when breaking through the glass ceiling. 

What are the underlying causes of the glass ceiling, and why is it so deeply rooted within different companies and organizations? 


Psychosocial Implications

It’s human nature for people to like strangers if they have things in common. Hiring managers or key decision-makers are more likely to promote or hire someone based on their organizational, educational, or personal life similarities with them. 

The sad thing is that not many employers choose to hire or promote an employee based on their merits or true potential that can add value to the organization because of this affinity-based decision. 


Sexual Harassment

As per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual factors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Women are particularly at risk of sexual harassment when they encounter men who are threatened by their rising status. Victims are 6.5 times more likely to quit than those who are not sexually harassed.


Gender Role Stereotyping

Children are separated by assigned sex at birth. One is only either male or female. These have been the basis of many roles in various aspects, most specifically in the academe and professional settings. 

American traditional belief systems also expected women to be more gentle, nurturing, and motherly. Meanwhile, boys were taught, from a young age, to be competitive and fearless. They are typically primed to perform at their best in preparation for future leadership roles. 

These deep-rooted, “traditional” gender roles contribute to the limits women face in the workplace.



Gender Bias

A study reveals that around 42% of women have experienced workplace discrimination. This includes not having equal pay, being treated or seen as incompetent, fewer chances of being promoted, being bypassed for pay increases, and missing out on vital career opportunities because of one reason or another. 

Progress has been slow in terms of how gender equality is being played out in workplaces because it is a hard-rooted kind of programming that endures for several reasons. Research indicates that only 10% of leadership in corporations are women.


What are the type of situations, and who are usually involved? 

The glass ceiling goes beyond gender. Some of the situations where the glass ceiling effect is involved may include:


  • Denying promotion 

Many women do not advance in their careers despite experience and merits simply because of their gender.

Did you know that despite comprising 51.1% of the total U.S. population, women glaringly lag behind men in top-level jobs in the U.S. workforce? This is concerning because, despite 54% of women claiming to be “very ambitious” when it comes to their career, only 6% of S&P 500 companies have female CEOS.

Women of color have an even harder time getting promoted, with 58 Black and 68 Latina women getting promotions for every 100 entry-level men promoted to the same occupation.

  • Lower pay

Payscale reported that the median salary for men is over 19% higher compared to that of women. 

Women usually receive lower pay than their male counterparts, which is primarily under the concept of a pink-collar ghetto. Pink-collar jobs were on the lower end of the pay scale than male-held white- or blue-collar jobs. What’s more, men were not required to have high educational backgrounds for either job type. 

  • Deprivation of resources needed to perform the job successfully

The company should generally be fully responsible for providing productivity tools, software, or hardware to maximize employee efficiency and potential. 

However, in companies where the glass ceiling exists, some managers or bosses may withhold facilities or tools to employees based on discrimination. 

  • Exclusion

This happens when one or part of a group is excluded in meetings or other communication channels where key information is exchanged. 

  • Lack of support

Leadership training or other learning opportunities deliberately denied by key decision-makers in the company to employees make it harder for victims of discrimination to reach their career goals. 

  • Abrupt territory transfers

Glass ceiling in the workplace may appear when an employee is being uprooted from their assigned territory or department on short notice or unexpectedly without proper briefing or explanation. 

  • No participation in important accounts 

Employees are sometimes discriminated against for one reason or another, therefore, losing the ability to be visible when teams work on valuable tasks. 

  • Maternal Ceiling 

When women have children, they may be overlooked for pay increases and job promotions. Women are expected to play heavy-duty roles that demand even more mental, physical, and emotional energy, especially working mothers.  

A study published in the Harvard Business Review reports that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the pandemic than men’s.  The same study also indicated that unpaid care was prevalent and fell disproportionately on women during the COVID-19 crisis. 


How can companies do their part? 

Companies up to the task of keeping with the times can do their part in breaking the glass ceiling by:


  • Recruiting employees based on talent and potential

Hiring managers and key decision-makers must see past any discriminatory characteristics to see everyone on equal ground and widen their viewpoints to assess an employee properly. 

What are some of the employees’ top skills, and how can they add value to the workforce? If they have talent and potential, it might be worth considering the employee for roles that require their unique skills and competencies while fostering inclusivity that aims to eliminate long-standing biases.

  • Adopting a zero-tolerance policy

All rules and regulations must be applied in equal measure to all employees, regardless of rank, gender, race, religion, or other categories—without harassment and discrimination, productivity, and overall morale boost among the team members. 

  • Getting rid of evaluation bias 

Employee evaluations based on gender, race, disability, or any other discriminatory factor are never in the organization’s best interests. An employee or applicant’s performance should be evaluated by accurately measuring their competence based on a collection of key performance indicators.

  • Prioritizing mentorship

Employees are more likely to grow with the company if they have a mentor. Ideally, mentors should not only be professionally skilled but also emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle setbacks that they and their mentees may encounter along the way. 

  • Encouraging gender neutrality

Gender neutrality promotes equal treatment regardless of an employee’s gender identity or sexual preference. Issues like pronoun usage, consent, and other gender-related topics are worth discussing. Open a healthy dialogue about these matters among your employees.

There is more to a person than their sexual orientation or gender identity. Inculcating this on every member of your team nurtures a culture of inclusivity and holistic positivity in the workplace. 

  • Supporting sexual harassment survivors

HR should be sensitive enough to openly discuss any sexual harassment issues and handle such situations with tact and professionalism. Treating survivors with respect and dignity allows other victims to come forward, making it easier for HR to weed out predators or disruptive employees within the organization.

  • Conducting regular training

Diversity and inclusion experts can help regularly train employees and departments about bias and stereotypes in the workplace. Additional training for executives and managers is encouraged since they will be leading teams. 

  • Discussing anti-discrimination laws in-depth

Laws created by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity safeguard employees against racial, religious, sexual, or gender discrimination.

The law also protects women from the maternal glass ceiling, covering pregnancy, childbirth, gender-related medical conditions, ageism, genetic data, or being disfavored because of their involvement in a previous discrimination-related complaint. 

  • Gathering feedback and taking action

Listening to your employees takes an open mind. Hear what they have to say so you can bring discrimination or work issues to light. When they make suggestions to improve the situation, weigh your options and consider if they are feasible or not. 


What you can you do if you’re affected? 

If the glass ceiling effect is what’s holding you back from reaching the top, here are some actions you can take. 


  • Demystify the term “glass ceiling”

Understand everything there is to know about the glass ceiling effect to ensure that you are making educated decisions and aware that it’s an obstacle in your career’s growth. 

  • Raise your concerns with management

Bottling it up is a disservice not only to you but also to the organization. If the authorities don’t know that discrimination occurs, they can’t and won’t know how to address it. Worse, you will remain in a situation that prevents you from growing.

  • Evaluate the situation and take appropriate measures

Observe your work habits, as well as your peers’ and higher-ups’ behavioral patterns, and try to be as objective as possible while in the process of improving your situation. 

  • Take the reins and be responsible for your growth

Seek growth opportunities somewhere else if you’re not given the right kind or amount of support to grow professionally or personally in the company. Find job openings that align with your strengths, skillset, professional experience, and temperament. No one else can truly know what’s best for you but yourself. 

  • Optimize your feedback channels

Gather feedback from reliable sources, and weigh opinions objectively. This will allow you to assess your situation with clear reasoning, making it easier to decide on the proper course of action. 

  • Volunteer for valuable tasks or projects

Showing interest in high-level projects or tasks signals self-trust, which many senior-level decision-makers or hiring managers find attractive.

  • Seek support from like-minded coworkers

Seek out people you can get along with within the organization and network with them so you can support each other’s professional goals.

  • Seek legal help when necessary

Glass ceiling discrimination is hard to spot and even more challenging to deal with. Sometimes, professional lawyers need to step in. Hiring a workplace discrimination lawyer will help you deal with the situation with more courage and confidence. 


Break free and shatter the ceiling

Eliminating workplace discrimination allows employees to have a healthier mental state, harmonious and happy relationships with their coworkers, and ultimately, unite an organization in doing its best to reach progressive and innovative goals. 

Business owners and organization leaders must always aim to build a culture geared towards valuing employees not only for their professional merits or contributions but also, most importantly, for being a part of their success. 

If you’re an employee of an organization dealing with discrimination issues that may jeopardize your chances of reaching your goals, don’t hesitate to reach out to Shegerian & Associates. They have an employment lawyer who can provide expert legal advice on workplace discrimination issues.

Manuela Varela

Relations Manager

Manuela Varela has been with Shegerian & Associates since August 2022. She is responsible for outreach and marketing on behalf of the firm and manages relationships between firms and referring attorneys. She is also responsible for developing business opportunities and affiliations. Manuela graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a degree in Economics and Political Science.