Why the “glass ceiling” is a “labyrinth”

The official definition of the glass ceiling, courtesy of the US Department of Labor, is: “those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organisational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organisation into management-level positions”.

The glass ceiling is a popular metaphor – one that we have often discussed in this space. But Alice Eagly, a professor of psychology and faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research near Chicago, says that it’s an imperfect and overly simplified way to describe the problem.

I caught up with Eagly, who is currently a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, on the phone recently. She told me:

“The glass ceiling as a metaphor is misleading. It suggests that the barriers to [women’s advancement] are only at the top. But the reason for the low number of women CEOs, COOs, or C-whatevers is because there are lower numbers of women in the level just beneath, and the level just beneath that. So it isn’t that the women are there in great numbers and then hit their head on a glass ceiling. The challenges that women face in having successful careers are all the way through, not just prejudice at the top, though that exists, too. It’s a whole lot of issues; let’s not simplify it.”

A more apt metaphor, she says, is a “labyrinth” because it better hints at the range of challenges women face throughout their careers: asserting themselves in often male-dominated office settings, managing work and home obligations should they decide to have children, and networking in a world that’s often seen as an old boys’ club.

What are the secrets of women who have successfully navigated this labyrinth?

“In Germany, where I am right now, many women who have made it to the top have chosen to not get married or have any children. It may sound harsh. In the US, there’s less of that. But still, if they choose to marry and have children, they have to ensure they do not drop out of the workforce. Studies have shown that dropping out is very damaging to careers. It’s hard to get back to a successful career. If a woman does have children then she must somehow accommodate her choice, either with paid help or with a spouse who is willing to take on more of the domestic work.”

Women also have to adopt a leadership style that is assertive and competitive, but also acceptably “feminine”.

“They must learn certain behaviours to negotiate the workplace. They have to learn to negotiate politics. They have to speak up. It takes a lot of courage, frankly, but they must not allow themselves to be disabled at work.”

Networking is part of this:

“The data suggest that women aren’t as well networked. Part of it may be that they’re too busy to network if they have children at home. But they need to create the bonds of networks in a way that works for their lives, and in a way that works within the broader organisational environment.”

Eagly acknowledges that while “the number of women in leadership positions is creeping up slowly, it hasn’t moved much in the last few years”. She is optimistic, however, about research she completed recently that shows young women increasingly want to work outside of the home after they have children. Her study of 114 undergraduate women told them to envision themselves as married mothers, and asked whether they wanted to work. As married mothers of a preschool child, 48.2 per cent of women expected part-time employment, 34.8 per cent expected full-time employment and 17 per cent expected no employment.

“It used to be that most of them wanted to stay at home when they had children. Now the most popular choice is having a part-time job. Part-time jobs don’t often come with as interesting a workload compared to what you would have if you worked a full-time career, and they don’t pay as well, either. But it is still better than dropping out.”

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About our bloggers

Liz Bolshaw

Liz Bolshaw is a business journalist and editor. She has been a successful book publisher, online editor, magazine editor and publisher.

She was launch editor of the Europe-wide online community Entrepreneur Country, has published magazines for PwC, 3i, dunhill and Bafta, and launched The Sharp Edge, a magazine for and about entrepreneurs, with Duncan Bannatyne. She is a regular contributor to Thomson Reuters’ Venture Capital Journal.

Her last project for the Financial Times was as editor of the paper’s Business Education magazine.

Rebecca Knight

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She writes regularly for the FT on business education, entrepreneurship, and management.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the management editor of the FT. He was City editor of the FT and editor of the daily Lombard column on British business and finance from September 2006 to December 2010.

He was the FT’s financial editor from June 2005 to September 2006, with overall responsibility for coverage of companies and markets. Before becoming financial editor, he was the FT’s comment & analysis editor, in charge of the paper’s opinion and features pages.

From 1999 to 2003, he was the FT’s New York bureau chief. He joined the FT in 1988 and has also worked as foreign news editor, UK companies reporter and correspondent in Brussels and Milan.

Pino Bethencourt

Pino Bethencourt is a professor and leadership expert at IE Business School in Madrid. She is also an author and executive coach.

Lynda Gratton

Lynda Gratton is professor of management practice at London Business School.

Linda Tarr-Whelan

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the UN commission on the status of women, is a Demos distinguished senior fellow.