The glass ceiling, a term coined in the late 1970s, represents the invisible, yet real, cultural barriers faced by women and minorities looking to build their careers by advancing to managerial or executive-level roles. While recent years have seen significant cracks in the glass ceiling, the Covid-19 pandemic puts many of these gains at risk as women and minorities were often required to juggle career and family needs.
This timeline offers key points in the history of the glass ceiling. Each time the phrase is invoked, it builds awareness around the progress that has been made and the work still to be done. The timeline also notes efforts at breaking the glass ceiling and giving true equal opportunities to everyone for promotion through the company ranks.
1978: An Invisible Barrier
Marilyn Loden, a management consultant for the New York Telephone Co. used the phrase “glass ceiling” while speaking on a panel at the 1978 Women’s Exposition in New York. The term was based on her research at work, where she was asked to find out why there weren’t a lot of women entering executive positions. Loden said she found there was an “invisible barrier” to advancement for women. While this is noted as the first time the phrase was used, the challenges for women and minorities existed for decades prior.
Women’s participation in the labor market passed 50% for the first time, normalizing their place in the workforce.
1980s: Not Enough Room at the Top
The term “glass ceiling” gets mass exposure when it appears in a book by Gay Bryant called The Working Woman Report: Succeeding in Business in the 1980s, where she says, “A lot of women executives are hitting a glass ceiling and find they can go no further.” Bryant also said in a 1984 Adweek article, “Women have reached a certain point — I call it the glass ceiling. They’re in the top of middle management and they’re stopping and getting stuck. There isn’t enough room for all those women at the top. Some are going into business for themselves. Others are going out and raising families.”
1984 also marked the first time the phrase was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. Coincidentally, this was the same year Geraldine Ferraro was nominated as the first woman candidate on a major party’s presidential ticket.
1990s: Government Steps In
The Glass Ceiling Act of 1991 established the Glass Ceiling Commission to conduct a study and prepare recommendations concerning eliminating artificial barriers to the advancement of women and minorities, increasing opportunities and developmental experiences, and fostering advancement.
Shortly after passing the act, the Glass Ceiling Commission issued its report. Among the findings:
- 97% of the senior managers of Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white; 95 to 97% are male.
- In Fortune 2000 industrial and service companies, 5% of senior managers are women—nearly all are white.
- Women and minority executives often make less than white male counterparts.
1999-2010: Cracks in the Glass Ceiling
In 1999, Carly Fiorina is named CEO of Hewlett-Packard and declares there are no longer limits on women’s careers. A year later, women’s participation in the workforce reaches 61%, an increase of 20% since 1970.
In politics, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman elected speaker of the House of Representatives in 2002. A few years later, Hillary Clinton loses her bid for the Democrat party presidential nomination, noting she couldn’t shatter the “highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
In 2008, a survey conducted by Reuters found most Americans believe that while women have made important advancements in the workplace, there still is a glass ceiling that hasn’t been completely broken.
In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first-ever African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she assumed the helm at Xerox. It was also the first woman-to-woman CEO succession (of a Fortune 500 company).
2010-Present: Pushing the Limits
The beginning of the decade saw women continuing to make advances with high-profile CEO appointments. In 2013 Mary Barra became the first woman to lead a global automaker when she was named CEO of General Motors and Lynn Good became the first female CEO of Duke Energy
Media outlets began to track opportunities for women while simultaneously calling out companies who aren’t embracing diversity. One of the most reputable sources for women’s advancement is The Economist’s annual Glass Ceiling index, which ranks 29 countries on ten indicators of equality for women in the workplace.
There are still challenges. The 2020s brought the Covid-19 pandemic and a new threat to women advancing at work, with many forced to juggle childcare responsibilities when daycares and schools closed. More than 2.3 million left the workforce during the pandemic and based on recent projections by McKinsey and Oxford Economics, employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024—two years after a recovery for men.
But 2021 did bring some positive highlights including the highest number of women running Fortune 500 businesses (41) and Vice President, Kamala Harris becoming the first woman and person of color to serve in this role.
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