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Perceiving Glass Ceilings? Meritocratic versus Structural Explanations of Gender Inequality among Women in Science and Technology

Erin A. Cech, Mary Blair-Loy
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/sp.2010.57.3.371 371-397 First published online: 1 August 2010


Americans often rely on meritocratic ideologies rather than structural factors to explain unequal labor market outcomes, but we know little about how such beliefs are contingent upon individuals' social locations. Taking advantage of unique survey data, this article examines how gender inequality in professional advancement is explained among successful women professionals in science, technology, and allied fields—an employment arena potentially characterized simultaneously by potent meritocratic ideologies and persistent gendered barriers. Using multinomial logistic regressions comparing structural and meritocratic frames for explaining the paucity of women at high levels, we show how respondents in different career and family circumstances use these conflicting perceptual lenses. We find that married women, those with business education, and those in the top levels of their organizations are more likely to account for gender inequality by invoking deficiencies in women's human capital or motivation, whereas mothers, primary breadwinners, sellers of professional services, and those working in unsupportive organizations are more likely to invoke structural explanations. This research has implications for social action. Successful women's beliefs about gender inequality may influence whether they help remove structural obstacles for other women, or whether, through adherence to the meritocratic ideology, they help reconstruct the glass ceilings they have cracked.

  • perceptions of inequality
  • gender
  • glass ceilings
  • meritocratic ideology
  • women in science and technology

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