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Question of the Month

From the Catherwood Library reference librarians

January 2005

PLEASE NOTE: The Reference Question of the Month is kept current only during the month for which it was written. Archived questions will not be updated, and over time may contain inaccurate information or broken web links. We provide archived questions as a service, since much of the information will remain accurate and of continued interest to the ILR community.

Question: Where did the term "glass ceiling" originate?

Answer: We did a Lexis/Nexis search for usage of the term. The first non-architectural instance that we found was in a 1984 Adweek article about magazine editor, Gay Bryant. In the article, Bryant explained the reasoning behind her decision to change jobs from editor of Working Woman to editor of Family Circle. Her use of the term "glass ceiling" was in the context of women's reactions to hitting it:

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.

(Frenkiel, Nora. "The Up-and-Comers; Bryant Takes Aim At the Settlers-In." Adweek. Special Report; Magazine World 1984. March, 1984)

The term also appeared in The Working Woman Report, Succeeding in Business in the 80s, a 1984 book by the editors of Working Woman magazine, in Bryant's chapter, "Where we are" and in another chapter, "Being your own boss" that is attributed to Basia Hellwig. (New York. Simon and Schuster, 1984. Available in the Catherwood Library at HD 6095 W92.)

These instances predate an important Wall Street Journal article whose authors are often credited with coining the phrase: Hymowitz, Carol and Timothy D. Schellhardt. "The Corporate Woman (A Special Report): Cover --- The Glass Ceiling: Why Women Can't Seem to Break The Invisible Barrier That Blocks Them From the Top Jobs." The Wall Street Journal. March 24, 1986. Available to the Cornell Community via Factiva.

In 1991, the U. S. Department of Labor defined glass ceiling as "those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management-level positions." (Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. U.S. Department of Labor, 1991. Available in the Catherwood Library at HD 4903.5 U6 U585.) The department's Glass Ceiling Commission (1991-1996) studied these barriers not only as they apply to women, but as they apply to minorities as well. (See Glass Ceiling Commission documents available on Catherwood's web site under Key Workplace Documents.)

The term "glass ceiling" is continuing to evolve. Although the most prevalent use of the term still pertains to women in the workplace, it is also being applied to:

  • Barriers created by a new NASCAR points system. (Kallman, Dave. "McMurray Hits Glass Ceiling in Chase for the Nextel Cup." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. November 6, 2004. Available to ILR subscribers via Lexis/Nexis.)
  • Breaking through 48% of the votes in the presidential election. (Reuters/Zogby: "Can Bush Break the Glass Ceiling?" The Hotline. October 22, 2004. Available to ILR subscribers via Lexis/Nexis.)
  • Songs that are longer than 5 minutes. ("Silversun Pickups don't just crack the glass ceiling that is the five-minute song..."?  Dansby, Andrew. "Recordings: Silversun Pickups." The Houston Chronicle. December 5, 2004. Available to ILR subscribers via Lexis/Nexis.)
  • The demarcation between Olympic and other sports. ("Indeed, those who assiduously hit the little ball against the wall, are entitled to feel that as far as Olympic recognition is concerned, they also have been hitting their heads against it. The modern game may be played with glass walls, but there seems to be something of a glass ceiling." Hubbard, Alan. "Squash: Beachill, Britain's Miracle Man of the Court." Independent on Sunday (London). October 31, 2004. p. 12. Available to ILR subscribers via Lexis/Nexis.)

To continue to track the meaning of this phrase, along with other English words and phrases, consult the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED definition of "glass ceiling" is currently, "an unofficial or unacknowledged barrier to personal advancement, esp. of a woman or a member of an ethnic minority in employment." (OED Online. Available to the Cornell Community via the Library Gateway.)

— Researched by SKL