The Glass Ceiling: A Fact Sheet
CRS Report for Congress
The Glass Ceiling: A Fact Sheet
Specialist in Labor Economics
Domestic Social Policy Division
Women and minorities in senior management positions are underrepresented
compared to their fraction of total employment. The term “glass ceiling” has developed
to describe the barriers that women and minorities are thought to encounter as they
advance up the organizational ladder. This explanation for the relative scarcity of women
and minorities in upper management positions was explored by the U.S. Department of
Labor (DOL)1 and by the Glass Ceiling Commission.2 DOL’s Office of Federal Contract
Compliance Programs continues to conduct the glass ceiling audits of government
contractors that it initiated in the mid-1990s.
“Nontraditional” Candidates for Management Jobs
Congressional interest in the issue of sex- or race-based employment inequities has
included equal opportunity to enter “nontraditional” occupations.3 Nontraditional
occupations typically are defined as those in which certain groups are underrepresented
relative to their share of aggregate employment.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up 47% of all
employed persons in 1999, and minorities (i.e., non-whites), 16%. In contrast, the
Commission’s reports cited studies from earlier periods of Fortune 1000 industrial and
Fortune 500 service companies that showed 95%-97% of senior managers to be men, and
1U.S. Department of Labor. A Report on the Glass Ceiling Initiative. Washington. U.S.
Government Printing Office, 1991; and Pipelines of Progress: A Status Report on the Glass
Ceiling. Washington. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.
2 The Commission was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1991, P.L. 102-166, Title II. Its 1995
reports (Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital and A Solid
Investment: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital) may be obtained through the
Internet [http://www.ilr.cornell.edu], the U.S. Government Printing Office, or the National
Technical Information Service.
3P.L. 102-530 (Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations Act) and P.L. 102-235
(Nontraditional Employment for Women Act).
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
More recently, a study of the 500 largest U.S. corporations found that 11.9% of
corporate officers in 1999 were women.4 Although this was up from 8.7% in 1995, the
figure remains well below women’s share of all workers. In the 340 firms from which both
gender and race/ethnicity data were obtained, 1.3% of corporate officers were minority
women. With the number of women holding top corporate positions (i.e., chief
executives, chairmen, vice chairmen, presidents, chief operating officers or executive vice
presidents) at Fortune 500 firms doubling between 1995 (57) and 1999 (114), their share5
grew from 2.4% to 5.1%.
Some think that men disproportionately hold senior management positions because
there are few women and minorities with sufficient, relevant work experience and
educational credentials employed in mid-level “pipeline” positions. It is argued that as
women and minorities increase their share of “feeder” positions, and thereby create a more
diverse pool of qualified candidates, organizations will voluntarily promote more members
of the two groups. Proponents of this viewpoint contend that government therefore need
not oversee firms’ promotion practices.
Other individuals believe that attitudinal and organizational barriers exist which inhibit
the advancement of nontraditional candidates. As discrimination is perceived to be limiting
opportunities for upward mobility among women and minorities, these observers think that
firms should actively pursue ways to shatter the glass ceiling and that the government
should assist firms in their efforts.
The findings of the DOL and the Glass Ceiling Commission largely supported the
latter point of view. The Commission recommended that the government lead by example,
strengthen enforcement of antidiscrimination laws, improve data collection and increase
public disclosure of diversity data for senior corporate positions.
The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) has continued to
conduct “glass ceiling reviews” of federal contractors. It performed 36 in FY1998 and 40
in FY1999. Corporate management reviews (CMR) are audits of personnel in corporate
offices and of mid/upper level managers throughout the organizations. In addition to
interviewing corporate officials, managers and other employees of federal contractors
during the CMR, agency staff examine such things as the diversity of personnel in feeder
positions and the availability of developmental opportunities for women and minority
employees. The CMR also involves analysis of current managers’ compensation, among6
other things. Glass ceiling reviews sometimes have caused federal contractors to give
back pay or salary adjustments to women and minorities in executive, managerial and
4Catalyst. 1999 Census of Women Corporate Officers and Top Earners. New York, 1999.
5Women have been the primary focus of the glass ceiling issue. See also: International Labour
Office. Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: Women in Management. Geneva, 1997.
6DOL. OFCCP Glass Ceiling Initiative: Are Their Cracks in the Ceiling?. Available at: