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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

glass ceiling

(1990’s | journalese | “sex discrimination,” “no room at the top”)

An unusual expression in that it seems to have been invented, or at least brought to the world’s attention, at a specific, detectable moment. Or perhaps that is an illusion based on the superstition that LexisNexis is infallible. Every on-line source that ventures an opinion gives credit to a magazine editor named Gay Bryant, quoted in Adweek, March 1984. The phrase took off — according to LexisNexis — in the second half of 1986, with a sharp increase in incidences, including uses by Betty Friedan and Katharine Graham. A book titled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling” was published in 1987. By the early nineties the phrase was well settled. The speed with which it took its place in our vocabulary suggests a certain pent-up demand.

“Glass ceiling” has not changed much since then, other than to seek out groups other than women, like African-Americans. My sense is that it is still used far more often of women than of any other group. A glass ceiling is an unacknowledged barrier to advancement to the top levels of an organization. More specifically, it is the name for the attitudes and actions of male executives, who find ways to prevent women from advancing into the highest circles of management (I almost typed “hell” — but according to Dante, the worst circles of hell were the lowest). The image suggests women who are close enough to real power to see it, but unable to reach the goal. It’s transparent (i.e., unacknowledged), like glass, yet impenetrable, like a ceiling. You can see it, but you can’t get through it. In an earlier age, we might have referred to such women as “(left) out in the cold.”

Every so often when you study an expression, you find alternative meanings that saw print once or twice and quickly disappeared. Usually they are as plausible as the winning meaning — often more — and it is not always clear why they didn’t make it. I can’t resist noting two that I came across. The first, from American Banker, November 22, 1985: “The response from the regulators and the Congress was a greater degree of voyeurism, and you and I found ourselves with offices that had glass walls and a glass ceiling. . . . The Comptroller’s office went on a witch-hunt, and the next thing we knew, our office had a glass floor and they were looking up our pants legs.” The emphasis falls on transparency, not impassability. Working beneath a glass ceiling means there’s no place to hide and you can’t get away with anything. Less than a year later, once again in American Banker, the president of the National Association of Bank Women said, “We’re not seeing women move into the very executive levels any more [any more?! — ed.]. There seems to be a glass ceiling that’s there. I call it a glass ceiling because I think it’s a fragile one and that it is going to be shattered.” Another familiar kind of glass — the kind that breaks easily. In retrospect, her optimism seems unwarranted, but the way she uses the expression seems at least as satisfying as the one we accept today.

In the military, you may hear about the “brass ceiling” that keeps women out of the top ranks. In England, the “class ceiling” hinders the upwardly mobile who went to state schools. Maybe there are other imitators out there as well. When a woman does reach the inner sanctum, she may be said to “crack,” “break,” or “shatter” the glass ceiling. The problem is more pervasive, however. If one or two extraordinary women here and there get through, that doesn’t mean a path is cleared for everyone else. There will be a glass ceiling until it’s as normal and commonplace for women to take the levers of power as for men. As long as qualified and deserving women aren’t promoted at the same rate as men — and that ain’t changed — the glass ceiling remains as thick as ever.

Ever-flowing gratitude to my gorgeous girlfriend, who not only nominated the phrase but pointed out that another pre-1980’s equivalent was “gentlemen’s agreement.” Extremely apt, as always.


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