Research published in the  Journal of Applied Economy shed light on how the glass ceiling works against women candidates for a committee or position during the selection process. Although the notion of implicit gender bias has been considered an important element of women’s discrimination in hiring, this new approach shows that the dynamics of promotion reinforce an existing gender difference and lead to a glass ceiling effect, even with a constant perception of bias. It means that the glass ceiling effect (discrimination becoming more severe at higher levels) may appear without the need for a larger bias at higher levels.

“Glass ceiling” is a metaphor used to represent the blocked promotional opportunities for women in the corporate hierarchy. Early research has identified the glass ceiling effect with higher wage differences and less probability of promotion at higher levels, within hieratical structures.

The team led by the University of Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain, focuses on demand-side explanations for the low female representation in corporate leadership. They used a mathematical and probabilistic framework – the Markov process — to study the gender gap in a promotion system. . “It is important to understand how selection processes in the labor market interact with gender bias in order to implement the correct policies.” the researchers point out. 

Asymmetric bias and inertia in selection processes

According to their probabilistic models, the selection process is affected by asymmetric bias and incumbency advantages. Asymmetric bias assumes that there is a gender bias in the selection process because each decision-maker has a bias that weighs in the final decision. Earlier studies provided evidence that the gender composition of recruiting committees matters for the female chances of success for a position, so in this mathematical model, researchers assumed that an asymmetric perception of candidates depends on the gender of the decision-makers if they are male or female.

“This assumption is motivated by the fact that, when the abilities of the candidates are not observable or they are the same, the selection process can be conceived as a random draw from the population of participating male and female candidates. With no gender bias, the probability of success coincides with the female proportion in the pool of candidates but gender bias will decrease the probability for women to get the new position,” the scientific article asses.

Another factor is the incumbency advantage (inertia). A selection process is influenced by the proportion of women on past committees as a signal of their ability for a particular position, or a signal of their willingness to run for office. 

“We consider that the probability of success is affected not only by the proportion of women in the pool of candidates but also by the perception of decision-makers. They take into account the female shares in the past. In other words, when inertia is important, fewer women on previous committees will be associated with fewer women being considered for present committees,” the researchers describe.

When the value of inertia is high in the theorem, it means a female candidate will be barely selected. “In fields where women have been historically absent or hardly seen, it would seem “natural” to keep this proportion low with the argument that the proportion of experienced women is also low. Although the proportion of women in the pool of eligible candidates may be larger,” the paper argues.

Hidden factors for the glass ceiling effect

Researchers explain that inertia and bias produce glass ceiling effects in different ways. On the one hand, inertia models the idea that changes may take place at a very low pace, even if bias were decreasing. It would happen due to several factors such as the importance of previous experience in the job, incumbency advantages, the absence of information on eligible female candidates, and partial renewal of existing committees. In this situation, the decision-maker perceives female candidates as a smaller group than it really is. On the other hand, the bias models show that the decision-makers would select women with a lower probability than their proportion in the pool of eligible candidates. 

Additionally, the mathematical framework illustrates that the interaction between bias and incumbency advantage exacerbates the consequences of a bias. On the contrary, in the absence of bias, any gender initial unbalanced in the committee’s composition would be corrected in the long run, no matter how large it is. The time needed to reach the proportion will depend on the inertia parameter, but in the end, the female share would be the same as their proportion of the population.

The findings suggest that inertia and asymmetric bias are present in many selection processes, and they may not be considered discriminatory or responsible for the glass ceiling effect by themselves. “For example, the requirement of previous job experience may be symmetric for men and women and, nevertheless, it exacerbates inequality when combined with gender bias; in the extreme case of incumbency advantage, the proportion of women converges to zero,” the researchers indicate.

This model provides a setup to analyze issues concerning the dynamics of group discrimination. However, the team points out that whether this lower participation of women is due to preferences, as some other studies claimed, or partly to biased selection processes is an open question. 


  1. Espinosa, M. P., & Ferreira, E. (2022). Gender implicit bias and glass ceiling effects. Journal of Applied Economics, 25(1), 37–57.
  2. BAGUES, M. F., & ESTEVE-VOLART, B. (2010). Can Gender Parity Break the Glass Ceiling? Evidence from a Repeated Randomized Experiment. Review of Economic Studies, 77(4), 1301–1328.

Featured illustration: Marco Verch.

I have a Bachelor's in Communication and a Specialization in Communication of Science. Working in the field of science communication, I have created content for different disciplines, working as a producer for TV broadcasts, documentary films, podcasts, and science articles. I also teach Audiovisual Science communication in a Postgraduate Specialization and I organized some communication workshops for researchers. I am currently a Ph.D. Anthropology student, focusing on memories and audiovisual representations in the context of institutional violence. I am interested in Visual Anthropology and Ethnographic Methods for video production.

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