Glass ceiling definition and how to break it in the workplace

Updated 30 September 2022

The glass ceiling concept highlights inequalities in the workplace, predominately affecting women and minorities. Various factors contribute to the social permanence of the glass ceiling, including gender roles, discrimination, sexual harassment, organisational management and psychological factors. Understanding the definition of the glass ceiling can promote inclusion and fairness in the workplace, ultimately leading to more people achieving their dreams fairly. In this article, we discuss what 'glass ceiling' means and provide tips on how you can break it as a team leader or in your role.

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Glass ceiling definition

The glass ceiling definition encompasses a symbolic barrier that prevents specific individuals from advancing to leadership roles in organisations. The phrase describes various attitudes and difficulties women and minorities face in their career paths, with this invisible barrier hindering promotion to managerial and executive positions. Men dominate upper-level careers as part of the culture in society, which perceives and accepts them as suitable candidates for such roles. You may experience a glass ceiling through implicit biases and accepted norms in the workplace, even with defined corporate policies.

The historical context of traditions and cultures affects the equality gaps that are still present in today's societies, causing higher or lower glass ceilings. Organisations have also created policies and programmes to increase diversity for better decision-making and efficiency. You can increase diversity to improve the representation of marginalised groups in management-level positions by hiring the best-qualified candidates for management positions irrespective of gender, colour and class.

How to break the glass ceiling in the workplace

The following steps are vital in breaking the glass ceiling in the workplace and ensuring career advancement:

1. Blind screening in the recruitment and promotion process

Blind application and screening processes help reduce unconscious bias when recruiting and promoting employees, as they exclude information that may reveal their gender or race. They ensure selection based on skills and experience using relevant information best suited for the role. You can conduct blind screening to reduce potential bias when handling CVs for strangers and get the best-talented candidates regardless of their gender, race or ethnicity.

2. Implement training against bias and stereotyping

Training against bias and stereotyping in the workplace helps combat the glass ceiling. You can organise internal training or bring in an expert on diversity and inclusion to start conversations and ensure they're inclusive and productive. Implicit biases and accepted norms affect diversity and require team members to take part in training to understand more about the glass ceiling and its effects. Also, management might benefit from additional training since they recruit and promote employees. By doing so, you break the glass ceiling and ensure the leadership team supports employees in their career development.

3. Set goals that promote diversity in recruiting and promoting employees

Combating the glass ceiling in the workplace requires setting goals that promote diversity when recruiting and promoting employees to higher-level roles. You can assess the level of diversity in your organisation and set goals in line with the findings you get. Use anonymous feedback collected from employees about areas where they have experienced barriers, bias and harassment while working in the organisation to help set clear goals for promoting diversity. The collected information can help show the present situation and determine necessary steps to break the glass ceiling within your organisation to enhance diversity at all levels.

4. Set SMART goals as a professional

Once you understand the definition of a glass ceiling, you can set SMART goals as a professional to help you advance in your career path. The SMART method enables you to make specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals, which are crucial for effective planning, implementing and achieving desired outcomes. Upper-level jobs require particular skill sets and experience levels and may take time to develop them. You can identify them and take steps to achieve them, since preparing well with flexibility as circumstances change positions you to succeed.

Related: How to write a professional development plan (with example)

5. Find a mentor

Mentors play a significant role in shaping lives and career paths by providing support and advice. They can be high-ranking professionals working in the same organisation as you or from different organisations interested in your career advancement. A mentor can also serve as a reference and raise your credibility when applying for promotions within your organisation or management roles in other companies.

6. Volunteer for opportunities in leadership roles

Another crucial step in breaking the glass ceiling is volunteering to take extra job responsibilities in various departments or work on projects. You may volunteer to lead a team, research and carry out surveys, represent the organisation in events, take minutes or chair meetings and committees. It shows that you're prepared to handle more prominent roles and provides all-around experience and insight crucial for leadership positions. Besides, they make your CV look impressive and enhance your skills.

7. Network and establish yourself as an expert

Networking helps break barriers that limit accessing high-level opportunities. By building a solid professional network, you learn about new job opportunities, get career guidance, connect with industry leaders and get recommendations that help break the glass ceiling. You can network with family, friends and other professionals crucial to your career development and maintain contact through regular communication. Social media platforms, social events and company websites help enhance networking.

As a professional, you can break the glass ceiling by establishing yourself as an expert and sharing your values and experiences with others. You can write a blog, create a website or use professional online accounts to write about your ideas, industry knowledge and engage with other professionals. Leaders speak during events and meetings, attend conferences and mentor others. You can become a respected leader in your area of expertise by positioning yourself well and expanding your audience.

8. Maintain a positive attitude

A positive attitude is a key to success, as challenges often accompany opportunities in every aspect of life. It's essential to maintain a positive attitude and help others, even when faced with difficulties. Use the definition of the glass ceiling to understand and combat instances of the glass ceiling within your organisation, stay motivated and motivate others and work well with customers, colleagues and superiors. Good leaders and team members serve and support their teams.

Related: How to maintain a positive attitude in 11 simple steps

9. Emphasise your strengths and share your concerns

Management values employees who add value to the organisation using their strengths and skills. Organisations often perform appraisals for their staff to determine promotions, pay raises and layoffs. You can use such opportunities to share your skills and strengths with your supervisor and present evidence to support your achievements. It shows your worth and helps break the glass ceiling, positioning you for promotion to higher-level roles.

You can share your concerns about an existing glass ceiling in your organisation when you know about it. Consider its effects and propose some ways of changing it. You can inform your manager to create awareness and change that enhances fair career advancement and breaks the glass ceiling. Effective leadership involves identifying issues and providing solutions to motivate employees and improve performance.

Related: Interview question: 'what are your strengths and weaknesses?'

10. Create an opportunity

An effective way to break the glass ceiling is by creating leadership opportunities for yourself. You can use resources combined with skills and experience gained to start your own business and access unlimited career development. As a leader in your company, you can get support and guidance from mentors, industry leaders and industry reports to ensure success.

Frequently asked questions

The following are common answers to some FAQs:

What does breaking the glass ceiling mean?

Breaking the glass ceiling refers to overcoming the barriers that prevent women and minorities from moving up the corporate ladder to occupy managerial and executive positions. It can also include removing barriers preventing others from moving to higher-level roles. You may break the glass ceiling to advance in your career or help others facing similar struggles to break the glass ceiling and experience career development.

Which factors contribute to the glass ceiling?

Various factors contribute to the glass ceiling for women, including personal, organisational, societal and demographic factors. Individual actors, for instance, family-work balance, self-perception, ability to work and willingness to perform tasks, affect career development. Organisational factors include the organisation's policies, culture and perception of the management team towards women's career advancement. Organisations' reluctance to invest in women employees arises from the perception that they may quit. Also, beliefs, traditions and stereotyping influence career development.

Is there a difference between a glass ceiling and a glass cliff?

Yes, there is a difference between the glass ceiling and glass cliff, though they both refer to challenges women and minorities face in career advancement. Whereas the glass ceiling involves barriers that prevent them from getting management positions, the glass cliff describes the tendency for organisations to promote women to management positions under challenging times with a higher probability

of failure. The glass cliff presents uncertainty after breaking through the glass ceiling. You can easily fall off the metaphorical cliff since difficult times often have more significant risks for failure.

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