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The Glass Ceiling, Glass Escalator, and Glass Cliff are metaphors that refer to the structural inequities that affect the lack of promotions and advancement of marginalized individuals (namely, women and people of color) in the workforce. 

These inequities lead to and exacerbate wage gaps, lack of diverse representation in leadership positions, burnout and mental health issues, identity-based discrimination in the workplace, and many other injustices.

The Glass Ceiling

The Glass Ceiling refers to the invisible barrier that prevents minoritized individuals from progressing into leadership positions. The promotional opportunities and position may be within sight but out of reach. 

Though subtle, this form of discrimination can be damaging as individuals can see various growth opportunities but cannot take them despite being qualified.

The Glass Escalator

The Glass Escalator refers to the unfair and accelerated promotion of men (mainly white men) in female-dominated fields. 

Men do not often take jobs in female-dominated fields like nursing and teaching. When they do, however, they are quickly promoted to higher-paying leadership roles. 

Women and other marginalized individuals witness these accelerations and may feel undervalued and overlooked.

The Glass Cliff

Glass Cliff refers to the accelerated promotion of women and marginalized individuals during a crisis. For example, a company realizes that the lack of representation in its leadership team does not reflect its supposed values, so it promotes a woman of color into a leadership position. 

This tends to happen quickly and with little to no support or mentorship. The individual is left feeling as though they are on a cliff or ledge, where they will either succeed or fail.

The Impacts

The presence of workplace identity-based inequities has detrimental effects on the lives of women, people of color, and other marginalized identities. 

These impacts include: 

  • Feelings of being overlooked and undervalued 
  • Experiences of burnout, anxiety, depression, and excessive fatigue 
  • Workplace due to microaggressions, discrimination, and hostile work environments 
  • Exacerbated wage gaps
  • Lack of mentorship or support opportunities

What the Individual Can Do?

If an individual is experiencing workforce inequities and running. There are things they can do: 

  • Seek areas of support. These can include people within and outside your organization, such as close colleagues, friends, mentors, Employee Resource Groups, and other trusted individuals. In some cases, HR may be a useful (or necessary) approach.
  • Maintain healthy life habits. Healthy life habits, such as coping skills, boundaries, good sleep hygiene, healthy nutrition, and physical activity, can help combat the effects of work stress. 
  • Plan your exit. If things do not improve, know you can always leave. However, it’s important to plan your exit and next step.

What Can Organizations Do?

There are many things organizational leaders can do to dismantle the structural barriers in their workplace. They can do this by embedding equity throughout their workforce. 

  • Implement equitable hiring, pay, and promotional practices. 
  • Adopt a trauma-informed leadership style. 
  • Develop and implement employee resource groups. 
  • Maintain transparency with staff regarding pay and promotions. 
  • Share decision-making responsibilities with staff representatives. 
  • Develop training on diversity, equity, and inclusion. 
  • Provide ongoing support and mentorship opportunities for staff.


While our physical offices are located in South Loop and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago, Illinois for in-person sessions, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more.  

This page is also part of the Roamers Therapy Glossary; a collection of mental-health related definitions that are written by our therapists.


While our offices are currently located at the South Loop neighborhood of Downtown Chicago, Illinois, we also welcome and serve clients for online therapy from anywhere in Illinois and Washington, D.C. Clients from the Chicagoland area may choose in-office or online therapy and usually commute from surrounding areas such as River North, West Loop, Gold Coast, Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lake View, Rogers Park, Logan Square, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Little Village, Bronzeville, South Shore, Hyde Park, Back of the Yards, Wicker Park, Bucktown and many more. You can visit our contact page to access detailed information on our office location.