Business woman looking up at glass ceiling in office

(© Drobot Dean -

CHICAGO — Women have historically had a tough time succeeding in the workplace, but over recent years many have made great strides in the business world to become successful CEOs or hold other leadership positions. While some have said this means that the so-called “glass ceiling” blocking women from the top jobs in corporate America has been shattered, a recent study fins that this invisible gender barrier still very much exists, and it’s hurting the U.S. economy.

The research, conducted at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, suggests surprising factors have reinforced the glass ceiling. Although a wealth of anecdotal evidence already exists showing that sexism has prevented talented women from reaching their full potential at work, the study found there are other factors besides just gender discrimination that hold women back.

“In a world where talent is distributed equally among women and men, an economy that does not fully tap into the leadership skills offered by women is necessarily inefficient,” explains Chicago Booth professor and lead author Marianne Bertrand in a statement. “Talent is left on the table when women are not placed in leadership positions, and the economy suffers.”

Bertrand identified three main reasons why the glass ceiling is still very real and burdensome for women in the workplace:

  • Despite the fact that more women today are graduating from college than men, female college graduates often end up working in fields that offer lower wages. Bertrand theorizes that this female underrepresentation in top-paying jobs could be due to women more typically choosing college majors with less overall earning potential.
  • Psychological differences between men and women may account for up to 10% of the current gender pay gap. A great deal of existing research indicates that women are much less likely to take risks in the workplace than men. This hesitancy to take risks on the job could hold many women back from promotions. Bertrand, however, is quick to acknowledge that the first step to addressing this discrepancy is determining if women’s low risk tendencies, on average, are a learned trait or something they are born with; nature versus nurture.
  • Finally, Bertrand explains that women are still very much expected to deal with outside responsibilities such as child care and housework. This makes it harder for women to focus on their careers, and instantly puts them at a disadvantage to men, who generally have more time to focus on business. Also, when women do end up earning more than their male partners, it usually puts a strain on the relationship and increases the couple’s chance of filing for divorce.

If the barriers and inconsistencies listed above can be rectified in the future, there’s no telling just how positive an effect it could have on the overall economy.

Bertrand recommends affording women more family-friendly work policies, such as longer maternity leaves, flexible hours, and remote working options, in order to provide more flexibility. Moving forward, Bertrand is also hopeful that emerging technologies will make things easier for women in the workplace.

“One of the biggest unknowns when trying to predict how the glass ceiling will evolve in the future is the role of technology,” Bertrand says. “There is no doubt that many trends are moving in the ‘right direction’ for women. How the next wave of technological change in the workplace, such as artificial intelligence, will change the structure of work is anyone’s guess.”
The study is published in the journal SSRN.

About Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at

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