Expert Commentary

Money, benefits and power: The “glass ceiling” and “glass escalator” hypotheses

2012 study by the City University of New York on the how the interaction of gender, race and ethnicity can produce wage and benefit inequality.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, enacted in 2009, is part of a long series of laws intended to help victims of workplace discrimination achieve equal compensation, promotion and treatment in the workplace. Despite these efforts, however, such practices persist.

Two predominant theories attempt to explain the differences in treatment between white men, women and minorities in the workplace. “The glass ceiling” asserts that there is a limit to how high women and minorities can be promoted. “The glass escalator” theory suggests that in female- or minority-predominant fields, white men are promoted more quickly and with greater ease. Some new research has explored how workplace configurations and team dynamics can influence these outcomes.

A 2012 study in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, “Money, Benefits and Power: A Test of the Glass Ceiling and Glass Escalator Hypotheses,” explored these two theories. This researcher, from the City University of New York, used data gathered in the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality.

Key findings include:

  • As one would predict, income significantly increases in positions with greater authority: “Workers in the sample would have mean earnings of roughly $36,239 (2011 dollars), compared with roughly $42,226 for supervisors and $53,255 for managers.”
  • The average white man working full time would earn $10,400 more than the average black woman — greater than the wage advantage of managers over nonsupervisory workers. The average white man earns $3 more per hour than a black man, greater than the $2 gap between workers and supervisors. “Although wage differences by authority level are statistically significant … they pale in comparison to enduring ethnoracial and gender differences.”
  • Contrary to the “glass ceiling” theory, the overall wage gap is not primarily caused by the gender difference at the top levels; instead, “the relative white male advantage remains the same at each level of authority for each ethnoracial and gender group.”
  • Examining the patterns of promotion reveals some evidence supporting both theories: “White male supervisors and managers are paid better under dissimilar superiors than under white male superiors; the opposite is true for all other groups [and] the wage gaps between white men and other groups increase from supervisory to managerial authority, and the wage gaps are wider between white men and other groups in work settings where employees report to women and minorities.”
  • The advantage for white males is not only in wages and promotions but also in employee benefits: “White men are more likely than any other group to have sick leave, individual health insurance, family health insurance and retirement plans.”

The study concludes that “ethnoracial and gender disparities in workplace processes and outcomes remain formidable obstacles to the fulfillment of a truly meritocratic system of attainment.” However, the two most popular theories to explain these disparities may not be the most accurate.

Tags: civil rights, women and work, glass cliff

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