What Do We Know About Glass Ceiling Effects? A Taxonomy and Critical Review to Inform Higher Education Research

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The aims of the current research were to understand: (a) how much research on glass ceiling effects has been done since the formation of glass ceiling commission?; (b) what trends are evident across this body of research?; (c) what research questions have been addressed?; (d) what research topics have been emphasized? (e) what frameworks were used to guide studies?; (f) what research methods were employed?; and (g) what has been learned about glass ceiling effects? To answer these research questions, we gathered a large amount of data in the form of previously published empirical and non-empirical research about glass ceiling effects. From the body of work reviewed, we determined that while there are a large number of sources which cite, discuss, and generally acknowledge a glass ceiling, there is relatively little empirical research devoted specifically to identifying and investigating glass ceiling effects. Our sampling of research questions also uncovered the fact that there is little coherence on how glass ceiling effects are identified and studied. However, it should be noted that this body of research does emphasize traditional measures of com- pensation (e.g., salary) and employment status (e.g., promotion rates) in the discussion of glass ceiling effects. The current research also employed various frameworks to guide these studies. In fact, the diversity among frameworks was so great, we could find only a few studies which were conducted with similar theoretical perspectives. The research methods employed by the studies also varied greatly. These included methods from both the quantitative and qualitative traditions, as well as from theoretical and non-empirical perspectives. In sum, we acknowledge that a great deal has been learned about glass ceiling effects in society from this body of work. However, there is little coherence on how best to operationalize or measure glass ceiling effects and there is little agreement on the causes or origins for women and people of color.  While they are observations of the state of the literature in general, specific issues relating to higher education are highlighted.

  • First, while the glass ceiling seems to be a common term in conversational discourse, little research has presented clear guidance for research and practice-based discourse. For example, there is little agreement on how to operationalize a single definition of a glass ceiling so that its effects may be studied in a uniform way.
  • Second, empirical studies differed in populations, methodologies, and frameworks to such a degree that meaningful comparisons are difficult to assert, even within sectors. 
  • The ability to make results gen- eralizable from this group of studies is not readily apparent. In addition, the studies from higher education stem from different methodological approaches and frameworks, with the majority of them not identifying a dominant framework.
  • Next, there is a dearth of scholarship which aims to disentangle the ways that race/ ethnicity and gender influence glass ceiling effects. Across all sectors, studies typically focused on gender, or the combined identities, or sources of discrimination, of race/ ethnicity and gender.
  • Very few studies focused solely on the effects of race/ethnicity and the glass ceiling. This finding is both troubling and surprising given institutions’ of higher education commitment to racial/ethnicity equity on its campuses and the fact that the Department of Labor has explicitly identified the glass ceiling as a barrier for people of color.  


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DOI 10.1007/s11162-009-9128-9
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