Research / BFI Working PaperJun 05, 2018

The Glass Ceiling

Despite decades of progress, women remain underrepresented in the upper part of the earnings distribution, a phenomenon often referred to as the “glass ceiling.” We review the recent research trying to explain this phenomenon. After briefly revisiting gender differences in education, we turn our attention to a body of work that has argued that gender differences in psychological attributes are holding back women’s earnings; we pay particular attention to the research that has aimed to test the relevance of these gender differences in psychological attributes in the field. We then review another active area of research that has returned to a more classical explanation focused on the challenges women may face when trying to juggle competing demands on their time in the workplace and in the home, particularly when the home includes children. We discuss recent work documenting women’s greater demand for flexibility in the workplace, as well as work measuring the labor market penalties associated with such demand for flexibility, particularly in the higher paying occupations in the economy. We highlight possible countervailing forces (both at work and at home) that may explain why these work-family considerations may remain highly relevant to today’s glass ceiling despite reduced time spent in non-market work and a trend toward a more equal division of non-market work between the genders. Finally, we discuss the role that public policy and human resource practices may play in adding more cracks to the glass ceiling.

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