The End of the Glass Ceiling: We Need a New Metaphor

No glass ceiling, but a labyrinth with twists and turns

Posted May 10, 2009

In their recent book, "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders," Alice Eagly and Linda Carli try to create a new metaphor to help us understand why there are so few high level leaders in U.S. businesses and government. The idea of a clear, impenetrable barrier doesn't fit because women can and do get through to top-level positions. According to Eagly and Carli, however, relatively few women do get to the very tops of the corporate or government ladders.

Instead, Eagly and Carli, suggest that women's path to leadership is more like a labyrinth, with twists and turns and dead-ends that make it more difficult for women to reach the top, at least this is the case in the U.S. and Western nations In developing countries, research shows, certain policies and less bias against women leaders has increased women's representation in leadership positions in government and business.

One important barrier for women is the increased time demands of many leadership positions, often far exceeding the 40-hour workweek. Because women typically shoulder the majority of childcare and homecare duties, it makes it more difficult for women with families to attain or succeed in some positions of leadership.

Women also face a double-standard in leading. The commonly-accepted stereotype of a leader is someone who is assertive and takes charge (even though it is effective people skills that truly make leaders succeed). Women are not only less likely than men to commonly display assertiveness, but if they do, women may be judged negatively for doing so.

Eagly and Carli offer some suggestions for women trying to reach the top. For example, they suggest blending more stereotypic masculine behaviors (e.g., assertiveness, decisiveness) with feminine behaviors, such as warmth and positivity. They also suggest that women build social capital through increased networking and taking advantage of mentoring opportunities. A recent book, Power Mentoring, suggests that it is nearly impossible for a woman to reach top leadership without utilizing a helping mentor.

Citing the fact that few women are represented in the truly powerful top level leadership positions in government and business, Eagly and Carli suggest that attitudes and policies need to change to allow greater access to women. Following the examples of some countries where, for instance, women must hold a certain number of governmental leadership positions, would lead to more rapid change.

Eagly, Alice & Carli, Linda (2009). Through the Labyrinth: the Truth about How Women Become Leaders. Harvard Business Press.

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