The Glass Ceiling for Ethnic Minorities

By Shannon Pfohman |

Ethnic minorities and migrants experience many obstacles in accessing the labour market and enjoying full equality at work.

Structural discrimination in employment can prevent ethnic minorities from climbing the career ladder or reaching their full potential. “They may suffer from the glass ceiling effect, the leaky pipeline, the sticky floor, or even the glass cliff”.[1] These are all different terms to describe variations of the same problem, namely, when policies and systems – that may have non-discriminatory intentions – result in inequalities. Employers may not consciously be discriminating, but due to the failure to question existing policies, procedures, and practices, discriminatory patterns are maintained and sometimes reinforced, causing preferential treatment of certain groups over others.

This is often referred to as the “glass ceiling” effect, which is widely documented in academic and policy research as negatively affecting women across countries of the European Union. There may be several reasons for the lack of awareness of the glass ceiling effect impacting ethnic minorities and migrants. One reason may be attributed to the failure of employers to collect personal demographic data on their employees and to monitor career progression within the company over time. Another reason may be the fact that disaggregated equality data is not publicly available in a number of countries, which means that researchers are less able to comment on this phenomenon. Yet another reason is found in  the lack of awareness and understanding of the issue.

The glass-ceiling is often described as the result of barriers based on attitudes and patterns “that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organisation into management-level positions”.[2]

Researchers have identified four criteria that must be met to conclude that a glass ceiling exists:

  •  a difference that is not explained by other job-relevant characteristics of the employee;
  • artificial barriers that are more severe at higher occupational levels;
  • inequality to be measured in chances of advancement, not just the proportion of workers in high-level positions;
  • increased inequality throughout the career path.[3]

While international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the European Commission have produced data on the glass-ceiling affecting women – including a glass ceiling index by country – the above-mentioned criteria are difficult to document in the case of ethnic and religious minorities. Identification of the phenomenon is not easy and requires looking at remuneration across the labour force. Likewise, the glass ceiling effect is difficult to prove in court and can be the result of unintentional individual attitudes or institutional patterns that are hard to flag up.

Research carried out by the Association to Encourage Professional Integration (AFIP) shows that minorities come up with strategies to cope with discrimination inhibiting the development of their careers. Qualified minorities tend to over-perform, ‘over-conform’, and undertake high risk-tasks or adopt low-profile attitudes. AFIP’s findings also show evidence of minorities in situations of marginalisation and isolation in the workplace.

While the EU is currently about to adopt its legislation to increase gender balance in the board of companies, there is no similar legislation to combat the glass ceiling for minorities, beyond the prohibition of discrimination by Directive 2000/78/EC of 27 November 2000, establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation.


[1] Wallaby, Silvia, Speech given at the 5th Equal@Work Conference in Brussels, Belgium on 5.12.2013:

[2]  Martin, L.,  A report on the glass ceiling commission, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 1991.

[3] David Cotter and others, The Glass ceiling effect, Social Forces, December 2001, accessible at, accessed 30 May 2013.