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Although cracks have begun to appear in it, the glass ceiling remains a stubborn roadblock to corporate success for too many women, people of color, and members of the LGBT community.

What is “glass ceiling” discrimination?

If you’re like a lot of people, you may have heard the term “glass ceiling” used a lot around the office and in the media, but didn’t know exactly what it meant in a legal context.  A glass ceiling generally refers to an unfair, artificial barrier that prevents certain employees (women; people of color; lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender) from fairly competing for upper management jobs in companies.  In practice, it keeps qualified employees from reaching their full potential and, depending on applicable law, illegally blocks them from occupying the best-paid and most powerful positions.  The glass ceiling can be caused by, among other things:

  • entrenched attitudes/stereotypes about what type(s) of people should get the “top” jobs at the company;
  • subjective/hard to define qualifications for promotions that introduce conscious or unconscious biases into decision-making; and/or
  • a lack of networking and mentoring opportunities for women and people of color.

Although the precise structure of a glass ceiling can vary from company to company, its discriminatory effects are undeniable and often devastating to those unable to break through it.  And according to one report, the average female employee loses $10,000 per year due to the wage gap between men and women.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as well as other federal and state laws, make it illegal for an employer to use promotion practices that create a glass ceiling.  Cases brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and others make clear that companies must proactively address promotion discrimination issues.  For example, the EEOC sued Outback Steakhouse about the company’s glass ceiling that prevented women from being promoted.  The class action case ultimately settled for $19 million in damages.  The settlement also required the company to:

  • set up an online application system for employees interested in managerial positions;
  • create and employ a human resource executive as the “Vice President of People”;
  • hire an outside consultant for at least two years who will determine compliance with the settlement agreement and analyze data to determine whether women are receiving equal opportunities for promotion.

Three Steps to Combat Glass Ceiling Discrimination

If you believe your company** denied you a promotion to a high-level position because of, for example, your gender, race/national origin, or sexual orientation, what can you do?  If you want to preserve your ability to challenge this glass ceiling in court, you should consider the following options:

  • File a written complaint and follow your company’s policy for submitting internal complaints;
  • You may also want to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Their website has helpful information on how to file the complaint and, although you cannot file the complaint online, you can file in person, by telephone, or by mail.  Depending on where you live, your complaint must be filed within 180 or 300 days of the discriminatory act.  If you have any questions about whether the EEOC is the right place to file, use their online assessment center, which will help you decide if the EEOC is the correct agency,
  • Talk about your legal options with an experienced employment law attorney. Given time bars that apply to discrimination claims, it is vital to get the right advice as early as possible in your case.

If you are a federal government employee or a state or local (city, county) government employee, different complaint filing procedures may apply.  The EEOC’s website has a handy online assessment tool that provides information on how to file a complaint.

What remedies are available if I win my glass ceiling case?

If you win your case at trial or settle with the company beforehand, several types of remedies may be available.  For example:

  • Back pay – the difference between what you should have been paid if promoted and what the company actually paid you;
  • Compensatory damages – damages to address emotional distress, reputational harm, etc. that you suffered as a result of the company’s refusal to promote you;
  • Punitive damages – damages to punish the company if it acted with malice or reckless indifference; and/or
  • Make-whole relief – placing you into the higher level position you were unlawfully denied.

Importantly, different federal, state and local laws may apply to your case and may allow different types and amounts of damages (Title VII, for example, has a cap on the amount of compensatory and punitive damages you can recover).

If you think you have been denied a promotion due to a glass ceiling, it is important to learn as quickly as possible about your legal options for making things right by talking with an experienced employment discrimination lawyer.

Survey Confirming Persistence of Glass Ceiling Discrimination

According to a recent Women in the Workplace study released by Mckinsey & Co., for every 100 women who get promoted from an entry-level position to manager, 130 men advance.  The study found that women are simply less likely than men to advance for various reasons:

  • they experience an uneven playing field,
  • their odds of advancement lower at every level;
  • there is a persistent leadership gap in the most senior roles;
  • gender diversity is not widely believed to be a priority; and
  • while employee programs designed to help balance work and family are abundant, participation is low among both sexes due to concerns that using them will negatively affect their careers.

While women and minorities have made many gains in the workplace in recent decades, the highest ranks of too many companies, accounting firms, law firms, and other professional services firms are still dominated primarily by white men.

Glass Ceiling Discrimination Lawyers

Zuckerman Law represents clients in glass ceiling discrimination claims and Eric Bachman, Chair of the firm’s employment discrimination and retaliation practices, has played a leading role in developing the law in this area.  Mr. Bachman served as the lead attorney on the largest Title VII case in the Department of Justice’s history (U.S. v. City of New York), a disparate impact class action that resulted in an approximately $100 million settlement.  He blogs regularly about new developments in this area at the Glass Ceiling Discrimination Blog.

If you have suffered glass ceiling discrimination, call us at 202-262-8959 or write us by clicking here.

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