Katherine C. Naff
San Francisco State University
A term used to describe subtle (almost invisible) barriers that women and minorities face as they try to move up the career ladder in organizations. The term was popularized in the 1980s and applied to women. Later, it was acknowledged that minorities also may face elusive barriers in advancement as well. Often it is said that a glass ceiling exists when women and minorities can see the top of a career ladder, but bump their heads against an invisible obstacle when they try to climb it.
Overt discrimination in employment against women and minorities has been unlawful in the United States since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in the past three decades women and minorities have made significant strides in gaining employment in both the private and public sectors (see discrimination, gender and discrimination, racial). However, these gains have largely been in entry-level positions and nonminority men continue to hold the vast majority of top level jobs. For example, in its report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative released in 1991, the Department of Labor (DOL) noted that in 94 Fortune 1,000-sized companies it reviewed, women held 37 percent and minorities held nearly 16 percent of jobs. However, in these same companies, less than 7 percent of executives were women and less than 3 percent were minorities. In the federal civil service, 47 percent of jobs are held by woman and 27 percent by minorities. But less than 12 percent of senior executives are women and less than 8 percent are minorities. Similar patterns can be found in most state and local governments, where nonminority men are nearly two-thirds of "officials and administrators."