How ‘The Glass Ceiling’ Became a Mega-Metaphor

Everybody knows what ‘the glass ceiling’ is: the invisible but real barrier between rising women and executive positions.

That you don’t need that phrase defined proves the power of a metaphor that taps into a deep trend accompanied by deep emotions.  Powerful metaphors are more than snappy turns of speech. They reach deep into the zeitgeist to crystallize how people feel. That’s what makes them memorable — and more:  “the glass ceiling” defines a widespread problem that affects success and economic wellbeing for millions of women.

A recent New York Times magazine feature on innovation helpfully explains who coined ‘the glass ceiling,’ and why. As a human resources manager at a large company in 1978, Marilyn Loden saw the statistics that summarized who got promoted, and who didn’t.  While participating in a panel discussion about workplace advancement titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall,” she suddenly paired her longstanding observation that women hit a ceiling with the imagery of glass.

It was an inspiration that defined not just the current situation of baby boomer women who aspired to leadership, but also the submerged organizational culture and structures that blocked those aspirations.

Here’s why ‘the glass ceiling’ works:

  • It is a juxtaposition of two familiar items — glass and ceiling — in an unexpected way. Everybody knows what glass is and everybody knows what a ceiling is, so it’s easy for them to envision a glass ceiling.
  • It is easy to build on the image. How many times have you read the phrase “cracks in the glass ceiling?” An entire online newsletter, The Glass Hammer, references the glass ceiling without mentioning it.
  • Share it. Loden’s inspiration happened in the moment, in front of an audience. She didn’t try to control it or copyright it or own it. If you coin a moneymaker, its influence (and yours) will grow only when others use it.

Short, relatable and easy to use: that’s how ‘the glass ceiling’ became a meta-metaphor.