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The glass ceiling: fact or a misguided metaphor?

Grahame Dowling (Department of Marketing, University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Annals in Social Responsibility

ISSN: 2056-3515

Article publication date: 17 July 2017




The glass ceiling is a metaphor used to characterize the gender inequality of women at the top in most large western organizations. This situation has prompted many business organizations, NGOs and governments to encourage large organizations to promote more women into the executive suite and onto boards of directors. While there is little controversy about this initiative, this paper argues that there should be because it directly challenges the principle that merit should outweigh diversity. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


This paper reviews research that purports to show that women are unfairly under-represented in the most senior positions in large western organizations. It also reviews the arguments that more senior women would improve the performance of these organizations. This research is then used to develop a model of why there are markedly fewer women than men at the top of large organizations.


This study finds that most of the research studies purporting to show that there is a bias against promoting women to the top of large western organizations are unsound because they are poorly designed and/or fail to accommodate alternative explanations for this effect. Thus, the current number of women who run these organizations may be a good reflection of their contribution to the management of these organizations. These findings suggest that many of the policies that are promoted to help women break through the glass ceiling are misguided.

Practical implications

Large organizations should think carefully about following the advice of special interest groups who vigorously promote this social cause.

Social implications

Social policy advocates need better research from which to advance their cause that there are currently too few women in senior management positions of large organizations.


This is one of only a handful of papers that challenges the current orthodoxy that artificial glass ceilings are restricting the potential contribution of women to the better management of large organizations.



Dowling, G. (2017), "The glass ceiling: fact or a misguided metaphor?", Annals in Social Responsibility, Vol. 3 No. 1, pp. 23-41.



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