This phrase is used to describe an invisible limit to a higher level. It’s most often used in reference to the barrier that keeps women from rising to the upper levels of management, despite having appropriate qualifications and experience.
Despite incredible success of individual women in business and public service roles, such as Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Hilary Clinton, the glass ceiling still exists. Many women make it to upper management levels, but few – very few, make it to the executive level of large companies.
It’s phrase that was probably most used in the 70s and 80s, there is some debate about who first used the term, and the concept was already referenced by Orwell in the 1930s but in a discussion of class difference.
Now that education and employment opportunities are gender equal the term shouldn’t be needed any more, but women still earn just 80% of what men earn in the US, and few companies have equal representation on the board room. Some commentators connect that to women’s own behaviour in the workplace – we’re not competitive, we don’t fight for it, we don’t network as well as men do. There may be some truth in that; amongst my women friends it’s unusual to ask for a promotion or pay rise – relying instead on a manager noticing your good work.