Tag Archives: working women

Glass ceiling or labyrinth? Reexamining the gender gap at the top

By Kevin R. Betts

I was recently asked to give a talk in an organizational psychology course about the gender gap in leadership positions. In determining the approach I would take for this talk, I asked several colleagues for their thoughts on the issue. The near immediate response from many of them was stated directly, “The glass ceiling!” Ostensibly, an invisible barrier referred to as a glass ceiling prevents women from securing positions of power. I imagine that this metaphor resonates with many readers as well. Ever since the Wall Street Journal’s Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt coined this term in 1986, perceptions of a glass ceiling have been central to the public’s understanding of gender inequality in the workplace. But how accurate is this metaphor today?

Emerging evidence now suggests that the glass ceiling metaphor inadequately depicts the experiences of women in the workforce (Eagly & Carli, 2007). For example, the glass ceiling metaphor implies the presence of an impenetrable barrier to top leadership positions. Today, it is clear that this barrier is no longer impenetrable. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi serve as examples of women at the top (Hoyt, 2010). Additionally, the glass ceiling metaphor leaves challenges faced by women at lower- and midlevel positions unaccounted for. Women do not progress through the ranks unimpeded before reaching these top positions. Rather, they face a series of challenges and problems along the way. Considering these limitations, Eagly and Carli (2007) have proposed that the challenges faced by women in the workforce can be better understood through the metaphor of a labyrinth. Consistent with traditional uses of the term, women aspiring to attain top leadership positions must navigate routes that are full of twists and turns. Some problems encountered within the labyrinth include prejudice, resistance to women’s leadership, issues of leadership style, demands of family life, and underinvestment in social capital. Although certainly more complex, the metaphor of a labyrinth seems to better depict challenges faced by working women today.

One can also better understand how to address the leadership gender gap using the metaphor of a labyrinth. If resistance toward women’s leadership is a primary obstacle, then interventions should target attitudes of those who are resistant to women’s leadership. If demands of family life are deemed problematic, then interventions might target the nature of relationships at home. As obstacles are identified and overcome, the leadership gender gap can be expected to shrink at a faster and faster rate.

Read more:

Where is the female Steve Jobs? (New York Times)

Glass ceiling not the obstacle it was (Yuma Sun)

Eagly, A.H., & Carli, L.L. (2007). Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women become Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Hoyt, C.L. (2010). Women, men, and leadership: Exploring the gender gap at the top. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/7, 484-498.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Marry Up, Men: The Benefits of the Breadwinning Wife

Are you ready to marry a bright single woman with a higher education degree and a higher paid job? A recent Pew Research Center report confirms the rise of the breadwinning wife. In addition, as the result of the recession, men, not women, now receive the greatest economic boost from marriage. This has to do with the fact that women are marrying later, that more of them are earning college degrees and that pay scales for women are rising. An educated, working wife is a valuable asset.

The universality hypothesis is the prediction that, in all contexts, women with a higher economic standing will delay marriage formation. In other words, women’s higher economic standing will decrease their chance of marriage. Some researchers suggest, however, that only in industrialized countries with a high degree of role differentiation by gender does the inverse relationship between women’s economic standing and the chance of marriage exist. For example, Hiromi Ono’s study (2003) showed that a higher level of women’s income decreases the chance of first marriage in a period among Japanese women but increases the chance of first marriage among both American and Swedish women. The results are consistent with the view that when women make economic contributions in industrialized countries with a relatively high degree of role differentiation, they experience stresses and inefficiencies in their lives in ways that conflict with the formation of marriage. In countries with a relatively low degree of role differentiation by gender, however, women of high economic status are more attractive in the marriage market because of the symmetry in the criteria of mate selection between the sexes. Nowadays, the recession, added to longstanding trends which have affected male workers disproportionately, is hastening this cultural shift away from traditional ideals of married families.

Hiromi Ono. (2003). Women’s Economic Standing, Marriage Timing, and Cross-National Contexts of Gender. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65, 275-286.

The case for older and better-paid women.

Alpha Wives: The Trend and the Truth.