Feature

Navigating the Labyrinth

For women, the glass ceiling has been replaced by complex and circuitous obstacles to high-level leadership roles by ALICE H. EAGLY AND LINDA L. CARLI

The glass ceiling has shattered. The metaphor of a glass ceiling, an absolute barrier to women’s advancement, is seriously outdated. Some women do make it to high positions as big-city superintendents of schools, governors, secretaries of state and, even occasionally, as Fortune 500 CEOs.

Women have gradually come to surpass men in education, now earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees as well as the majority of advanced degrees. More women than ever before are employed and their incomes have risen. Among full-time employees in the United States, women now earn 80 percent of what men earn, up from only 62 percent in 1979. And across all organizations, 51 percent of those in professional and management positions and 23 percent of chief executives are women.

Alice EaglyAlice Eagly


Women have come a long way but certainly haven’t reached workplace equality with men, especially not in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as corporate management and science and technology. In the largest U.S. corporations, the Fortune 500, only 16 percent of the corporate officers and 15 percent of the members of boards of directors are women.

Occupations are still segregated, although somewhat less so than in earlier decades. Women hold only 14 percent of engineering and architectural positions and 26 percent of positions in computer science and mathematics. About 14 percent of those in active military duty and 14 percent of police officers are women.

In contrast, women compose 97 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 97 percent of secretaries and administrative assistants, and 92 percent of registered nurses. Job segregation remains a problem for women because salaries are lower in female-dominated professions, where women receive lower pay relative to men for their level of education and training.

Women also advance more slowly than men do even in occupations such as nursing and elementary school teaching where women vastly outnumber men. And even when a woman holds the same managerial position as a man, the woman typically has less power and authority. Women clearly remain disadvantaged in their access to leadership, although there is considerably more equality than in the past. What’s holding women back?

An Outdated Metaphor
The glass ceiling metaphor has great appeal but is misleading in characterizing the problems that women leaders encounter. One problem is this metaphor’s image of an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The existence of women in high places negates that charge.

At the same time, the glass ceiling metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and mid-level positions. But this isn’t the case. Women have more difficulty than men in obtaining those positions outside of the traditional female-dominated sectors of the economy. Once in jobs, regardless of whether those jobs are traditionally masculine or feminine, women don’t advance as fast as men and they drop out more commonly at every stage of their careers.

Linda CarliLinda Carli


So women do not merely encounter problems late in their careers when top positions are in their sights, but from the beginning, when they enter the job market. And then, as many studies have shown, women disappear in various numbers at many points on the way to the highest levels of leadership, leaving very few women to compete for the top.

Another problem with the glass ceiling metaphor is that it represents a single unvarying obstacle. But the challenges that women face are multiple, complex and changing. The image of a transparent glass barrier also suggests that women can’t see the obstacles they face ahead of time. But some impediments, such as balancing a career and family, are obvious, and even the more subtle forms of discrimination can be identified and understood long before women reach the advanced stages of their careers.

In our book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, we explain that many factors slow women’s advancement. Our metaphor of the labyrinth illustrates women’s complex and circuitous paths to leadership. Some women do make it to the center of the labyrinth where leadership resides. Those who make their way through the labyrinth enjoy higher wages, greater respect and more authority. However, compared with the relatively straight route taken by men, women generally have to exert more effort and navigate more carefully to overcome obstacles. And women have had to be more patient because they seldom find themselves on the same fast track that quite a few men enjoy.

One set of challenges that many women face is family care responsibilities, which typically are greater than those undertaken by men. As a result, women often reduce their hours on the job after they have children. Some women quit working outside the home and spend one or more years devoting their efforts to their families.

Although slightly more men than women quit managerial jobs, men and women have somewhat different reasons for quitting. Women more often leave their jobs for family reasons than men do. Women who leave their jobs to rear children during their prime career-building years usually face a major career setback. Many women never get back on a good career trajectory and rarely re-enter employment at their prior level of pay or authority. Part-time jobs usually slow women’s progress and give them less challenging work to do.

Three Reactions to the Labyrinth by Krista Parent, C. Cryss Brunner, and Sarah D. Jerome


Editor’s Note: The School Administrator invited three recognized authorities on women in the superintendency to provide their reactions to the labyrinth metaphor described in the accompanying article by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli.

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Challenges at Home and at Work
The modern emphasis on “intensive parenting,” particularly among more affluent parents, imposes extra stress that falls mainly on mothers. Polls say that a majority of Americans believe in equal sharing of parenting, but even today, with men doing more child care than ever before, women still do most of it. Surprisingly, research shows that women today actually spend more time interacting with their children than their mothers and grandmothers spent with theirs. So mothering is one of the major challenges that women face in their career journeys, and motherhood produces a wage penalty even for women who remain employed full time.

Women’s greater caring responsibilities are only part of the reason why fewer women than men hold high positions. Even though sex discrimination violates our laws and values as a nation, it hasn’t been eliminated.

Considerable research conducted across the social sciences make a persuasive case that workplace discrimination still exists. Studies by economists and sociologists have explored how much of the gender gaps in wages and promotions might be due to differences in male and female employment patterns. Their findings indicate that even if you take into account those patterns — that women take more time off for family, for example — you still get wage and promotion gaps. And in experimental studies by psychologists, where people evaluate men and women who have identical credentials or performance, women receive less favorable evaluations than objectively equivalent men except for obviously female-dominated positions such as clerical worker.

These days, discrimination isn’t so obvious, even to those who discriminate against women or to the women who are targets of discrimination. Although most people have no idea they are discriminating, their evaluations of others are colored by cultural stereotypes painting women as the nicer, kinder sex and men as the assertive, directive sex.

Because the qualities that are ascribed to men are more or less the same qualities generally ascribed to leaders, women are viewed as less qualified to lead. To many observers, highly qualified women don’t seem to have what it takes to lead. Without realizing they are engaging in sex discrimination, people automatically and unconsciously tend to think that women just aren’t confident or commanding enough to be successful in higher-level leadership posts.

This discrimination grows out of gender stereotypes that are shared by people around the world. Research shows that people believe that men are more authoritative, assertive and competitive — qualities that psychologists call agentic — and women are more helpful, kind and giving — qualities that psychologists call communal. Although stereotypes about women are highly positive, they can be a handicap when it comes to situations that involve taking charge and being a leader.

To overcome people’s doubts about how strong and capable they are, women have to prove they’re as authoritative, assertive and competent as men. To do this, they have to outperform men, and show in no uncertain terms that they have what it takes to be in charge. Research shows that in male-dominated fields, such as higher management and engineering, the bar is set especially high for women. To be considered as qualified as a man, a woman must amass considerably more evidence of accomplishment.

Competing Pressures
Stereotypes create other obstacles, as well. Women are not only thought to be communal, but they are expected to be. Women who take charge and show how strong and smart they are can get into trouble for seeming to be too forceful or assertive. People often criticize such women for not seeming to be warm or nice enough.

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These two competing pressures — to prove one’s abilities, but also to remain warm and giving — create a double bind. Satisfying both pressures is challenging. Studies show if women are highly communal, they may be disrespected because they strike people as being incompetent and weak. But if they are highly agentic, they may be disliked because people regard them as cold and difficult.

The key disadvantage of the double bind is that it creates resistance to women’s leadership and influence. On one hand, people fail to recognize great work by women. Research shows that women’s ideas are ignored or devalued more than the same ideas advanced by men. Even when women perform exceptionally well, their expertise often goes unnoticed. People disregard mistakes when men make them, but women’s flaws stand out. And women leaders are judged more harshly than male leaders, even when their performance is objectively equal.

On the other hand, when people do recognize a woman’s competence, they may resist her influence and leadership anyway because they’re threatened by her. Women who accumulate an impressive record, especially in a man’s field, are more likely to be seen as difficult, obnoxious, selfish and manipulative than a man with the same record. Men can promote themselves and “blow their horns” without being criticized for it. In fact, self-promotion works pretty well for them, in getting promotions or raises. But women who do the same are disliked and, as a result, are less likely to get what they ask for. Men can get away with being direct, dominant, commanding and even intimidating or disagreeable, but such behavior is seen as offensive in women.

It might seem that men, too, would be burdened with proving their agentic ability or perhaps avoiding communal behavior, but in fact, men are free from such pressures. Because people assume that men possess greater agentic competence than women, women not men are the ones who have to go the extra mile to prove their abilities. And men are not condemned for behaving communally. On the contrary, because such behavior is unexpected in men, they actually get extra credit for being nice. For example, when men are especially helpful to others, they reap benefits for their helpfulness, but especially helpful women do not. People, however are not bothered by unhelpful men, but unhelpful women are penalized.

Resistance to women is strongest in occupations that have few women. The more men in an occupation, the more harshly women are evaluated, the more they are sexually harassed, and the more men are hired over equally qualified women. Consequently, women seeking leadership positions rarely held by women face the complex set of challenges that we have called a labyrinth. Getting through the labyrinth requires careful navigation to get past the obstacles created by the double bind.

Gender Traits
What can women do to overcome these obstacles? One effective strategy is to combine the best of masculine and feminine qualities.

The masculine part of this strategy involves displaying competence by being exceptionally knowledgeable, competent and authoritative. The feminine part involves displaying communal skills by being exceptionally considerate, supportive and inspiring to colleagues and subordinates.

As it turns out, studies comparing male and female managers show that women do combine masculine and feminine qualities more than men do by adopting a transformational style of leadership. What do transformational leaders do? They innovate, solve problems effectively and act as excellent role models. They also inspire, encourage, empower and support their subordinates. And there’s good evidence that transformational leadership is effective in modern organizations. So it appears that women, somewhat more than men, lead in ways that are typically quite effective.

Mamisma or Machismo: Do Aspiring Superintendents Need Both? by PAULINE M. SAMPSON


Seven years ago, I accepted a position to oversee the United Community School District near Ames, Iowa, becoming one among the estimated 18 percent of women superintendents in the nation. At the time, I did not think much about mamisma or machismo.

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Popular books that advise women on how to get ahead in their careers often provide contradictory advice. Some maintain that women should emulate their male colleagues and act tough and macho. Other authors maintain that women should use their feminine wiles and nurturing skills to their advantage. Neither type of advice is particularly helpful.

Women do better when they avoid “acting like a man” or moving to the opposite tactic of featuring their femininity and motherly skills. The best advice, based on ample research, is that women generally benefit from combining features of both the feminine and the masculine repertoires of behaviors. Successful female leaders in this way often can finesse the dangers of the double-blind resistance to female leadership by being more collaborative and considerate than male leaders, encouraging and mentoring followers, emphasizing positive rather than negative incentives, as well as by performing exceptionally well.

Social Networking
There are other things that women can do to advance their careers. There is plenty of evidence that women have less social capital at their jobs than men do — that is, women lack the supportive network of contacts, relationships and mentors that men have. These social connections are critical to careers; connections speed advancement and increase salaries. Yet building such networks can be difficult in organizations dominated by men.

Because women are less likely to be invited to join male networks or to be mentored by men, the burden is on women to make the connections. But women may feel unwelcome in male-dominated networks or reluctant to participate in the activities that male networks often enjoy, such as pickup basketball and poker games. Women often find it easier to network with other women, a good strategy for obtaining social support, but not a good way to increase one’s power and authority if men are in charge. It is also true that amassing a valuable network is time-consuming, putting additional pressure on women with families because a portion of this networking occurs outside of normal work hours.

Women surely can’t fully resolve the obstacles encountered in the labyrinth all by themselves. Yet a good first step for women is to recognize they likely will face career impediments that are different from and more difficult than those faced by men. Our behavioral advice about finding a middle way between masculine and feminine behaviors should be helpful, as is our advice to strive to build social capital. But other changes are needed.

The challenges of family life could be surmounted if men shared more of the domestic responsibilities. Equal sharing of child rearing would mean that time devoted to caring would not harm women’s careers more than men’s. Plus, research indicates that active and full involvement in family and career roles is good for men’s and women’s mental and physical health.

Advancing Successfully
Organizations have an important role to play to increase women in leadership roles. Creating and supporting family-friendly policies would allow women more access to leadership.

In the workplace, women’s slower advancement is due in part to their limited access to powerful male networks as well as to organizational cultures that are not congenial to women. Cultures that can exclude or alienate women can be based on masculine activities that are less appealing to women and work environments that might strike women as “cutthroat” and macho. And a lot of business may be done by going out for drinks after work, a form of networking particularly difficult for busy mothers. To discourage such women-unfriendly cultures, organizations can create networking venues where women as well as men feel comfortable.

Another problem is that in organizations, evaluation of women leaders often is tainted by stereotypes that women lack the ability to lead. To reduce this bias, organizations can rely on objective evaluation criteria and open recruitment procedures, both of which increase advancement opportunities for women. Organizations also appear to benefit from increasing their female leadership. Studies of Fortune 1000 companies have found that the percentage of women among executives and on boards of directors is associated with organizations’ financial performance.

The good news is that, given women’s extraordinary progress so far, it’s clear that many women find ways to overcome challenges. Women can and do chart a course through the labyrinth.

Alice Eagly is a professor of psychology and the James Padilla chair of arts and sciences at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. E-mail: eagly@northwestern.edu. Linda Carli is an associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. They drew this article from their book Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders.