Leadership Solutions from Read Solutions Group: How Women Become Leaders

Thursday, September 27, 2007

How Women Become Leaders

Is it a glass ceiling, a glass cliff or perhaps it’s a labyrinth. Alice Eagly and Linda L. Carli, in their book, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, argue that the glass ceiling is no longer an apt metaphor. In the 70’s and 80’s, women were encouraged to seek higher positions, yet found their careers stalled just short of the top leadership positions. In some cases, women were allowed into leadership, but not too far. There was a glass ceiling.

In more recent years, as attention has shifted enabling all high potential employees, the glass cliff phenomena was identified – a situation where women are given high risk opportunities, and denied (whether consciously or unconsciously) the support and resources to succeed. (See Testing the Glass Cliff for more on this topic.)

In the 21st century, women are achieving more and more positions of prominence, yet the numbers of women in leadership remain low. Eagly and Carli propose that the path to leadership for women is more akin to a labyrinth – a difficult and challenging maze with numerous obstructions and barriers, rather than a single glass ceiling.

Barriers identified include:

  • Women tend to carry much of the family / child responsibility in the home.
  • A hidden bias in the prevailing sense that leadership is a masculine endeavor. As a consequence, women tend to be evaluated lower even with same credentials.
  • Discrimination found in the company cultures. For example, fast track careers may require intense hour commitments (referred to as extreme jobs by Sylvia Ann Hewlitt) or in the environments that continue to support socializing involving strip clubs, drinking, hunting, etc.
  • Women placed in staff rather than line jobs.
  • Women being passed over for the high-visibility challenging assignments, conversely being assigned to glass cliff jobs.

What can be done about this?

  • As the definition of leadership changes to include more elements of emotional intelligence, women will be perceived as more suitable for leadership roles.
  • Leadership can allow flexibility for parenting, particularly in the dinner hours (see Top Jobs and Maternal Guilt).
  • Organizations can strive for more objective measures of performance and accomplishments.

What can women do for themself? Women can and do succeed in all kinds of environments. Recognize their personal strengths and limitations and then aligning those with the choice of company and the company culture will best position them to negotiate the labyrinth.

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