Hit the Ceiling at Work? What To Do Next

The glass ceiling is an unspoken barrier to advancement facing women and historically excluded groups. Here’s how to identify one — and bust through it.

portrait of Kat Boogaard
by Kat Boogaard

Published August 11, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Hit the Ceiling at Work? What To Do Next
Image Credit: gradyreese / E+ / Getty Images


When it comes to work, most people don't want to clock in, clock out, and collect a paycheck. Work consumes a large portion of our lives, so most of us are eager for learning, growth, and advancement.

In a 2021 study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 83% of the global workforce said they wanted to advance their career over the next year. A whopping 73% said they were motivated to do it immediately.

But career growth isn't quite as easy as making your goals and desires known to your employer. Some employees hit roadblocks that prevent them from getting the growth opportunities they really want.

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Ready to start your journey?

One thing that might stand in their way? The glass ceiling.

What is the Glass Ceiling?

The glass ceiling is a term for a barrier to advancement. This barrier isn't always easily seen or readily acknowledged, but it's an obstacle that certain groups face when trying to climb the career ladder.

The term was coined in 1978 by workplace consultant Marilyn Loden, who used it during a panel discussion to describe the limits and hurdles facing women at work in particular. The definition has since been expanded to apply to people in any other historically excluded group who might face cultural barriers when growing their careers.

This barrier can show up in several different ways — such as pay disparity for the same work and qualifications or an obvious gender bias when filling leadership roles.

Why Does the Glass Ceiling Exist?

When diversity has become a point of focus for employers, glass ceilings often aren't conscious decisions or purposeful barricades. So, how do organizations end up with glass ceilings at all? Many factors lead to a lack of opportunities for women and minorities:

  • Unconscious Biases: The root of any glass ceiling can be tied back to unconscious biases. These are stereotypes or beliefs we hold about certain groups of people, whether we realize it or not. For example, male managers might assume that women are less assertive and less fit for leadership positions.
  • Demands of Child Care: Glass ceilings aren't just an organizational issue — they're a cultural one, too. Pew Research shows that women are still responsible for the brunt of childcare and housework. Because higher-ranking positions tend to have less flexibility, women often cannot commit to those rigid responsibilities as easily as men.
  • Psychological Differences: Some studies have stated that women are less likely to take risks than men. However, a 2022 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly found that this is not true. There aren't major gender differences in risk-taking behavior, but women are far more likely to encounter negative consequences for risky behavior, which can hold women back professionally. A male colleague might throw his hat in the ring for a lofty promotion without a second thought, while a female might waiver because of fear of judgment.

Signs You've Hit a Glass Ceiling

Lack of advancement at work doesn't automatically mean you're dealing with subtle discrimination. So, how can you tell if you've actually hit a glass ceiling — or if something else is holding you back? Here are five signs that a glass ceiling is what's keeping you from climbing higher.

1. Your Career Goals Are Ignored

You've been upfront and vocal about your career goals with your manager. But you have yet to see those translate into opportunities — whether it's a challenging new project, valuable mentorship, or any other chance to develop.

2. You're Passed Over for Promotions

You know you're more than qualified for higher positions and continue to apply. However, your company keeps making outside hires for those roles. Or even worse, they keep giving them to people who may be less qualified than you.

3. You Pick Up on Microaggressions

Perhaps you've noticed that women are frequently disrupted and talked over during meetings while men have uninterrupted time to voice their ideas. These subtle signs show that your employer could have some unconscious biases — which contribute to a glass ceiling.

4. Your Development Is Unnoticed

With or without your company's support, you've made strides to learn new skills and tackle challenges. Yet, nobody in management seems to notice your progress and continues to point to areas you need to improve. It doesn't feel like a way to push you to grow and instead seems like a way to instill feelings of inadequacy.

5. You Don't See Leadership Diversity

When you look at your company's org chart, you see a completely homogeneous leadership team. There's barely any gender, racial, or ethnic diversity (or none at all). That's a major red flag that a glass ceiling keeps certain people from advancing to those high-ranking roles.

Steps to Break the Glass Ceiling

You've determined that you're up against a glass ceiling at work. Now what? Here are a few tips to bust through that barrier and continue your path to advancement:

  • Build a Strong Network: Focusing on relationship-building with peers, vendors, clients, and leadership will help you create a web of advocates who can champion you for more growth opportunities.
  • Be Vocal About Your Goals: A network of cheerleaders and supporters goes a long way, but ultimately, you must advocate for yourself. Have a conversation with your manager to discuss your career ambitions and the steps you need to take to get there. Follow up on that conversation frequently to keep your goals top of mind and ensure that you're taking steps toward them.
  • Pursue Your Own Growth: As much as you want your employer to stand behind your growth, you're in the driver's seat for much of your learning and development. If there's a certification or certificate you want to pursue, a course you want to take, or a new skill you're interested in building, find opportunities to do so yourself. You'll fulfill some of your desire for learning while also proving to your employer that you're committed to your career.
  • Know When It's Time to Move On: While taking ownership of your career direction is important, recognize that you won't change the culture of your entire organization on your own. Suppose you're putting effort into networking, learning, and having important conversations but still aren't seeing any noticeable changes or improvements. It could be time to move to an organization that fully supports you and your ambitions.

Bottom Line

Growing your career isn't a straight line. You're bound to encounter some hurdles and curves along the way.

If you think one of the obstacles you're facing is actually a glass ceiling, there are a few strategic steps to better position yourself for growth.

As you do so, stay aware and look for any signs that your organization won't change its ways and support your advancement — regardless of how much effort you put in. Breaking through a glass ceiling is tough, but it's nearly impossible if you realize that the glass ceiling is actually made of concrete.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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