By Ellen Pearlman
Strategic Thinkers: Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli
Credentials: Eagly is a professor and department chair of psychology and a faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She has written two previous books, The Psychology of Attitudes and Sex Differences in Social Behavior. Carli is an associate professor in the psychology department at Wellesley College. Her research focuses on gender, influence and leadership.
Big Idea: The concept of a "glass ceiling," that excludes women from top positions, is outdated. The metaphor of a "labyrinth" better explains the path to success that today's women must navigate.
Book: Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, published by Harvard Business School Press, October 2007.
Did You Know?
- Women earn 57% of bachelor's degrees, 59% of master's degrees, 48% of doctorates, 42% of MBAs.
- Women constitute 46% of all full-time and part-time workers.
- Women hold 42% of managerial and administrative positions.
- Women occupy 23% of chief executive positions.
- Women hold 16% of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies and 6% of top executive titles in the F500 (chairman, president, CEO and COO).
- Studies on corporate executives and boards of directors in U.S. firms find that the inclusion of women is associated with stronger financial performance.
The glass ceiling that prevented many women from attaining leadership positions is shattered, according to Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, authors of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. While that impenetrable barrier might be gone, women are still excluded from top positions more than men, but the process that restricts them has changed. The authors chose a new metaphor to describe the path women must now navigate to become leaders-a labyrinth, which conveys a "complex journey that entails challenges and offers a goal worth striving for." This new path may be indirect and complex, with many detours along the way, but it is no longer inflexible and does allow some women to succeed. Men, in should be noted, do not have a comparable circuitous path they need to travel.
The author's conclusions are based on scientific research from psychology, economics, sociology and management. Many questions are explored, such as: Are men better leaders? Are women's careers derailed due to their responsibilities at home? Do organizational cultures create obstacles to women's leadership? And do women have leadership styles that work against them?
While I won't address all the important issues that the authors raised in their book, I was particularly intrigued by the "double bind" that women face as they pursue leadership roles. Women are often presented with competing demands, says Eagly and Carli. "On the one hand, female leaders are expected to fulfill the female gender role by being warm and selfless, and, on the other hand, they are also expected to fulfill the leadership role by displaying assertiveness and competence." This is particularly true in masculine settings, such as the military, or in professions dominated by men, such as engineering. If a woman lacks warmth, people (both men and women) don't like her and if they think she lacks confidence and competence (and is not direct or assertive enough) then they don't respect her. So women who seek leadership positions, unlike men, must demonstrate that they can be both assertive and sociable. "Research suggests that male leaders can show their warm, feminine side without penalty, but female leaders who show their strong, masculine side are resented," note Eagly and Carli. Now that's some double bind!
Women who have chosen careers in IT know this double bind well. Technology, traditionally a male-dominated field, creates additional challenges for aspiring women leaders. "Female leaders, particularly in areas such as business, engineering, and science, are likely to experience intense male resistance," say the authors since "men have more to lose from women's advancement." There are many ways that men show their displeasure, especially when they are in the majority, as they generally are in business or IT. One way is to ignore women's ideas or usurp them as their own. Another is to express doubts about a women's competence or imply she was promoted because she was a woman and not because she was the best qualified candidate.
It's not easy overcoming gender prejudices and stereotypes, especially since people get their ideas about what constitutes a leader from their experiences with men as leaders. But there are steps that companies and individuals can take to help remove barriers to women's advancement. Eagly and Carli suggest several organizational innovations to foster gender equality:
- Offer flexible work and change the emphasis on long hours by placing more value on the quality of work.
- Reform performance evaluations and recruitment practices so they are less subjective.
- Don't rely on informal social networks and referrals to fill positions.
- Include women in training opportunities and legitimize their contributions as leaders.
- Reduce tokenism by having a critical mass of women-not just one or two-in executive positions.
- Avoid having a sole female member on a team. Outnumbered women tend to be ignored by men.
And what can a woman to do to ease her path to a leadership role in her organization? The authors provide two general suggestions:
- Demonstrate that you are both agentic (assertive and in control) and communal (compassionate and helpful); however, this has limitations in workplaces that are highly masculine.
- Establish an exceptional level of competence as a leader; perform beyond expectations at work that is viewed as challenging.
- Take credit for your accomplishments; promote yourself in a friendly and collaborative manner or enlist the help of a supportive colleague to draw attention to your ideas.
- Negotiate effectively for salary and rank.
- Try to create acceptance for your behavioral style and values.
- Build social capital through good relationships with your colleagues within and outside your organization.
- Network with other women for support, role modeling and information; network with men, although in male-dominated networks you may have less legitimacy and influence and might benefit from a mentoring relationship with a well-placed man who possesses greater legitimacy.
The authors also spend considerable time discussing the need to balance employment and family responsibilities. Many of the obstacles women face going through the labyrinth are a result of these family demands. No one solution will solve this dilemma, but as men and women get better at sharing home and work responsibilities and as companies improve at offering flexible work-life solutions, these problems will ease.
The authors also acknowledge that some readers will object to their advice because of the implication that women must accommodate themselves to cultural and organizational norms. However, the authors say, "Our point is that women should not wait to seek leadership until organizational and cultural changes have created a level playing field. Women who initially break into male-dominated roles face special challenges, but when they are successful, they can foster progressive organizational change that creates greater fairness for the women who follow in their footsteps."
Content reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Excerpted from Through the Labyrinth by Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli. Copyright (c) 2007 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation; All Rights Reserved.
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