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The meaning and origin of the expression: Glass ceiling

Glass ceiling

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Glass ceiling'?

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The glass ceiling is an unacknowledged barrier to workplace advancement, usually in regard to women or minority groups.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Glass ceiling'?

Architectural textbooks have many references to ceilings made of glass. Of course, that's not what we are interested in here, although the fact that glass ceilings existed in the real world did lay the groundwork for the figurative phrase.

The term, in the barrier to advancement sense, was used by several writers on the topic of women in the corporate workplace during the 1980s.

The earliest citation in print that I can find is from an article by Nora Frenkiel about magazine editor, Gay Bryant entitled "The Up-and-Comers; Bryant Takes Aim At the Settlers-In", Magazine World, March, 1984:

"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."

Marilyn Loder - Glass CeilingManagement consultant Marilyn Loden says that she coined the phrase at a Women's Action Alliance meeting held in Manhattan, USA in 1978:

"I first used the phrase 'glass ceiling' in 1978 during a panel discussion about women's aspirations".

There's no reason to disbelieve Loden's account but there aren't any records of the meeting available to confirm it.

Since becoming commonplace in contemporary language it has become generally applied to obstacles encountered in any field and by any group; for example, this piece of economic news from the Daily Telegraph, 1994:

"After several spirited assaults, the FT-SE's 3200 glass ceiling finally gave way yesterday, allowing the index to close sharply higher after a day of drifting."

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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