Abstract: Where the Legislative Model Failed: Civil Rights Enforcement and the Glass Ceiling

Pamela Walker Laird


For decades following the 1964 United States Civil Rights Act, activists sought to eliminate workplace discrimination by advocating for additional legislation and enforcement. Initial successes reinforced expectations that law-based actions could best serve discrimination's victims. However, integration's early successes obscured corporations' complex social and organizational dynamics and overestimated what legal approaches could achieve. Law-based reforms that had brought millions into entry-level and middle management jobs failed to move them farther up corporate ladders. The term ''glass ceiling'' entered the language in 1984 and expressed rising frustrations among African Americans and white women whose career paths stopped before their ambitions did. The federal Glass Ceiling Commission (1991-1996) and the U.S. Senate's 1991 ''Glass Ceiling Hearings'' revealed deep divisions and uncertainties about how to advance equal opportunity employment at that stage of civil rights history. Witnesses in both venues cited countless cases of ''blatant discrimination'' but rarely distinguished between reform strategies that worked below the glass ceiling and those that could move people through and beyond it. Resulting legislation yielded nothing enforceable to conquer the glass ceiling. Instead, non-litigious strategies based on different narratives have challenged the glass ceiling by broadening and changing business and national cultures.