The glass ceiling: Three reasons why it still exists and is hurting the economy

August 22, 2018

The glass ceiling, that invisible barrier to advancement that women face at the top levels of the workplace, remains as intractable as ever and is a drag on the economy.

New research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that sexism has prevented many talented women from achieving their full potential at work, there are factors beyond gender discrimination in the workplace that are holding women back.

"In a world where talent is distributed equally among women and men, an economy that does not fully tap into the leadership skills offered by women is necessarily inefficient," says Chicago Booth Professor Marianne Bertrand. "Talent is left on the table when women are not placed in leadership positions, and the economy suffers."

In the working paper, "The Glass Ceiling," Bertrand reviews the extensive literature surrounding the glass ceiling, including her own work, and finds three key reasons why the glass ceiling persists in excluding women from top-paying jobs. While family-friendly work policies such as longer and paid maternity leaves, paternity leaves, optional part-time or shorter work hours, and the opportunity to work remotely, help address women's need for greater flexibility, they fail to address the earnings gap, says Bertrand. No one policy will be able to crack the glass ceiling, she says. But she is hopeful that technological advances could pave the way for change.

"One of the biggest unknowns when trying to predict how the glass ceiling will evolve in the future is the role of technology," says Bertrand. "There is no doubt that many trends are moving in the 'right direction' for women. How the next wave of technological change in the workplace, such as artificial intelligence, will change the structure of work is anyone's guess."
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University of Chicago Booth School of Business
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