The term “glass ceiling” refers to invisible barriers that keep some people from advancing in the workplace.

You know you’ve reached it when lesser qualified individuals keep passing you by.

In theory, any qualified person can rise in the ranks at work and enjoy the perks that come with that. There are legal protections and individual corporate protections that should make the glass ceiling obsolete.

But those invisible barriers persist.

Leaders may or may not be aware of their own cultural biases involving gender and race. Whether they do or not, it’s a subtle form of discrimination.

The glass ceiling keeps people from getting certain jobs, despite being well qualified and deserving. It’s a phenomenon that affects career trajectory, status, and lifetime earning potential.

The glass ceiling effect doesn’t end with the workday. It fans out into all areas of a person’s life. It can even affect mental and physical health.

Continue reading as we explore the glass ceiling effect and how it impacts health and well-being.

One example of the glass ceiling can be seen in the office of the president of the United States. There’s no law that prevents a woman from occupying this office, yet it still hasn’t happened.

Now let’s take a company with a diverse workforce, boasting a good percentage of women and minorities throughout the ranks.

Then contrast that with upper management, where women and minorities are vastly underrepresented. Something doesn’t add up.

Or, suppose you’re a woman who’s been with the company for a long time. An upper management job opens up. You’re experienced and abundantly qualified.

But instead of getting the promotion, you’re assigned to train the new manager, who happens to be a less qualified man.

Maybe you’re doing all the work of a manager and handle your responsibilities well, but you don’t have the title or pay rate of others doing the same job.

The glass ceiling effect can be felt long before you bump up against it.

Women and minorities may be left out of meetings and mass communications. They may find themselves excluded from networking events that take place at or outside of work.

When you add it all up, these exclusions can deprive you of mentors and powerful professional relationships. You’re out of the loop on upcoming events and opportunities that could advance your career.

Other, more direct actions contribute to the glass ceiling as well. This can include discriminatory hiring practices, sexual harassment, and hostile workplace environments.

For the most part, the glass ceiling hides in plain sight and is difficult to prove. The glass ceiling effect, however, is keenly felt.

The realities of the workplace can have a direct effect on people’s health and well-being.

A stalled career and the inability to gain a higher income can leave you with a bundle of mixed feelings, such as:

  • self-doubt
  • a sense of isolation
  • resentment
  • anger

These feelings can spill over into every area of your life.


A 2019 study revealed that the glass ceiling has a direct impact on the stress levels of female employees.

Chronic stress is known to affect the immune, digestive, and cardiovascular systems.

Symptoms of long-term stress may include:

  • irritability
  • anger
  • sadness
  • sleep problems
  • headaches

Chronic stress can contribute to:

Mood disorders

Women tend to have anxiety and depression more than men. In 2016, a study suggested that gender discrimination at work, which includes unequal opportunity and the wage gap, may be a contributing factor.

Signs and symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • nervousness
  • worry
  • restlessness
  • increased heart rate
  • rapid breathing
  • sweating
  • trouble concentrating
  • sleep problems
  • gastrointestinal problems

Signs and symptoms of depression may include:

  • sadness
  • a sense of hopelessness
  • irritability
  • angry outbursts
  • loss of interest in normal activities
  • sleep problems
  • changes in eating habits
  • lack of energy
  • anxiety
  • a sense of worthlessness or guilt
  • trouble concentrating
  • unexplained physical aches and pains
  • difficulty managing day-to-day activities

The glass ceiling has certainly been chipped, but not shattered.

It’s estimated that 85 percent of corporate executives and board members are white men.

Back in 1991, the U.S. Congress found that women and minorities were underrepresented in management positions. That’s despite their growing presence in the workplace.

In 1995, the Glass Ceiling Commission issued a report stating that only 3 to 5 percent of senior management positions in Fortune 500 companies were filled by women.

They also noted that women who did rise to senior positions were paid less than men in similar positions.

There’s still a long way to go.

According to a Pew Research Center 2014 survey on women and leadership, 4 in 10 Americans said there’s a double standard for women who want to rise to the highest levels of business or politics.

Women have to do more than men to “prove themselves.”

And 53 percent believed men will continue to fill more top positions in business in the future.

In 2016, the Society for Human Resource Management and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute reported that only 3 percent of Fortune 500 companies have a Hispanic person on the board of directors.

A 2015 report by the Ascend Foundation examined workforce diversity in technology companies in Silicon Valley. They found that the impact of race is 3.7 times more significant than gender as a negative factor for the Asian workforce.

In addition to achieving the top positions, there’s the question of compensation.

In general, women aren’t compensated as well as men. While some people attribute this to women not asking for more, a 2018 research paper demonstrated otherwise. They concluded that while women do now ask for better compensation, they don’t get it.

A 2013 study analyzed all CEO transitions in Fortune 500 companies over 15 years. They found that white women and people of color are more likely than white men to be promoted when firms are in decline.

This is known as the “glass cliff.” When these CEOs are eventually replaced, it tends to be by white men.

Recognize that this says nothing about you personally. It’s not your fault.

You have several options for how you want to move forward. You can raise awareness of the issue and try to change the status quo. Or, you can channel your energies into advancing elsewhere.

If you want to learn about how to report discrimination at work and school, nonprofits such as Equal Rights Advocates can help guide you.

You can also visit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a discrimination or harassment claim.

There are many factors to weigh, and these decisions are intensely personal. Do what you think is right for you.

When it comes to the mental health effects, here are some ways to find relief and support:

  • Be on the lookout for symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Find ways to ease stress, such as yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises.
  • Make time for purely recreational pursuits to help relieve stress.
  • Improve your sleep habits to promote a better night’s sleep.
  • Connect with others. Family and friends can provide emotional support.
  • Network within your field. Find mentors who can lift you up. Mentor those who are following in your footsteps.

If you feel overwhelmed by stress, consider seeing a mental health professional to learn skills to help you cope.

If you have symptoms of anxiety or depression, see a doctor as soon as possible. They can discuss treatment options such as medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes that can help improve your quality of life.

Corporate leaders have the power to change attitudes by setting a good example. Employers can:

  • recognize the value of diversity
  • commit to gender and racial equality
  • ensure women and minorities are represented on boards and in senior management
  • address preconceptions and stereotypes that contribute to the glass ceiling
  • match employees with suitable mentors
  • be inclusive with networking opportunities
  • give all qualified applicants a chance to apply for promotions
  • encourage better in-house communication
  • hold those in positions of power accountable
  • be intolerant of discriminatory practices
  • promote a work-life balance

The glass ceiling is a term that describes the invisible obstacles that make it difficult for women and minorities to advance in the workplace. While things have improved over the last several decades, the problem persists.

The glass ceiling effect takes a toll. Stagnation of title, pay, and status can leave you frustrated and stressed out. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to manage stress in your life.

Long-term stress can contribute to mental and physical health issues. If you have symptoms of anxiety or depression, see a doctor. There are treatment options that can help.

Being held back by the glass ceiling is a reflection on society, not you.