Women on the Labyrinth of Leadership


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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If one has misdiagnosed a problem, then one is unlikely to prescribe an effective cure. This is the situation regarding the scarcity of women in top leadership. Because people with the best of intentions have misread the symptoms, the solutions that managers are investing in are not making enough of a difference.

That there is a problem is not in doubt. Despite years of progress by women in the workforce (they now occupy more than 40% of all managerial positions in the United States), within the C-suite they remain as rare as hens’ teeth. Consider the most highly paid executives of Fortune 500 companies—those with titles such as chairman, president, chief executive officer, and chief operating officer. Of this group, only 6% are women. Most notably, only 2% of the CEOs are women, and only 15% of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women. The situation is not much different in other industrialized countries. In the 50 largest publicly traded corporations in each nation of the European Union, women make up, on average, 11% of the top executives and 4% of the CEOs and heads of boards. Just seven companies, or 1%, of Fortune magazine’s Global 500 have female CEOs. What is to blame for the pronounced lack of women in positions of power and authority?

In 1986 the Wall Street Journal’s Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt gave the world an answer: “Even those few women who rose steadily through the ranks eventually crashed into an invisible barrier. The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just couldn’t break through the glass ceiling.” The metaphor, driven home by the article’s accompanying illustration, resonated; it captured the frustration of a goal within sight but somehow unattainable. To be sure, there was a time when the barriers were absolute. Even within the career spans of 1980s-era executives, access to top posts had been explicitly denied. Consider comments made by President Richard Nixon, recorded on White House audiotapes and made public through the Freedom of Information Act. When explaining why he would not appoint a woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, Nixon said, “I don’t think a woman should be in any government job whatsoever…mainly because they are erratic. And emotional. Men are erratic and emotional, too, but the point is a woman is more likely to be.” In a culture where such opinions were widely held, women had virtually no chance of attaining influential leadership roles.

Times have changed, however, and the glass ceiling metaphor is now more wrong than right. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The fact that there have been female chief executives, university presidents, state governors, and presidents of nations gives the lie to that charge. At the same time, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and midlevel positions. They do not. The image of a transparent obstruction also suggests that women are being misled about their opportunities, because the impediment is not easy for them to see from a distance. But some impediments are not subtle. Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, the glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges that women can face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage.

Metaphors matter because they are part of the storytelling that can compel change. Believing in the existence of a glass ceiling, people emphasize certain kinds of interventions: top-to-top networking, mentoring to increase board memberships, requirements for diverse candidates in high-profile succession horse races, litigation aimed at punishing discrimination in the C-suite. None of these is counterproductive; all have a role to play. The danger arises when they draw attention and resources away from other kinds of interventions that might attack the problem more potently. If we want to make better progress, it’s time to rename the challenge.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

I highly recommend that you also check out HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Women and Leadership.

Alice Eagly is the James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences and a professor of psychology at Northwestern University.

Linda L. Carli (lcarli@wellesley.edu) is an associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts; her current research focus is on gender discrimination and other challenges faced by professional women. The two are coauthors of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, forthcoming in October), from which this article is adapted.



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