The “Glass Ceiling” Is Misleading
Alice Eagly is a social psychologist who has published widely on the psychology of attitudes, especially attitude change and attitude structure. Her work focuses on the psychology of gender, especially sex differences in similarities in leadership, prosocial behavior, aggression, partner preferences and stereotypes.
Eagly is the author of "Sex Differences in Social Behavior: A Social Role Interpretation," "The Psychology of Attitudes" with co-author Shelly Chaiken, and "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders" with co-author Linda L. Carli. She also is the author of numerous journal articles and chapters in her research specialties.
Now a professor at Northwestern University, she previously taught at Michigan State University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Purdue University.
Question: Is there still a “glass ceiling?"
Alice Eagly: The glass ceiling has been with us for awhile and is a very popular metaphor still, so you’ll read that in journalism in particular, but also in the social science literature the metaphor used. I think that it is not a good metaphor. We certainly still have prejudice against women in leadership roles in various ways, so... you could say well glass ceiling is a metaphor for prejudice. But if you look at it in a more precise or detailed way at that notion of a glass ceiling I think we can see how misleading it is.
For one thing it suggests that the barriers are way up there in the hierarchy so that a woman would of course have a career in the same way as a man, but then she gets near the top. She thinks she is going to become executive vice president or maybe CEO and then, whoops, she finds out she can’t. She didn’t realize that before, according to this notion, but she hits her head on the glass ceiling. So... that is profoundly misleading because the challenges that women face in having successful careers are not just at the top. They are all the way along the career from step one through step two, step three, all the way through the career. So the reason you have so few women at the top of some hierarchies—such as being a chief executive officer in the Fortune 500—is that there are few women at that level right before that, so women progressively drop out of the hierarchy. It isn’t that the women are there in great numbers and then can’t get to that upper level. It’s a progressive drop out that occurs for many different reasons, so it is a rather odd metaphor actually in terms of not capturing the phenomenon.
Question: Are women misled about their opportunities?
Alice Eagly: It isn’t anybody systematically misleading them, but there is the idea that there is no prejudice and that they have equal opportunity and they’ve lived a life through school and through college with equal opportunity... fairly much. So it seems that that’s true, but then they don’t look out and see, well, women are systematically doing as well in their careers as men, dropping out more, not rising nearly as fast. And so I think that is not that salient to many young women because they’re not in the career yet and then they may think "Well that's a different generation, we have equal opportunity." And then they enter the labyrinth.
Ask those women 10 years later when their male colleagues very often have moved forward faster than they have or perhaps they’re at home raising children and may never get back to anything like a fast-track career and so then they have a very different set of ideas about it, through experience. So the problem is to inform younger women in particular about the labyrinth so that they will approach it thoughtfully and not have regret later on—but yet not be discouraging... so it’s kind of discouraging to tell young women "No, we don’t have equal opportunity and let me tell you why." But the labyrinth idea is meant to be in that middle range that you have challenges that your young men colleagues don’t have, but it’s a labyrinth, not a glass ceiling, so maybe if you figure it out and are very thoughtful about it and learn about the contours of the labyrinth you will reach the goals that you have set for yourself in your life.
Question: What kinds of women make it to the top?
Alice Eagly: They’re usually very smart. I think they have thought it through. I mean there is accidental features of careers, of course, opportunities that happen to come to a person, but I think those women have been thoughtful about their careers. And they’ve made choices that were enabling in various ways.
You know, one of the biggest challenges for women in terms of career is family of course. That is the obvious and that comes often relatively young. When you have all your training, you have your MBA or your law degree or your whatever and then you’re going out on the career just like your male colleagues and then for many women there are those decisions about marriage and childbearing, which can become, depending on how that is managed, can be quite disabling for the career, because they often involve moving off the fast track. Either some women would drop out and then other women would want to go part-time, understandably, but then they’re off the fast track.
So you see women who are CEOs. Occasionally they’ve dropped out and stayed home for a few years, but that is very rare. Usually they either have not had children, or, if they do, they’ve just managed it in other ways. Perhaps they have one of those husbands who shares equally or whatever or they’ve managed to... Many women manage to have families and successful careers, but it’s much more challenging often for women than men because women ordinarily have more responsibility for childrearing. So that is a challenge that comes very early.
Perhaps many women don’t realize that in studies that have been done that’s you know not managing that well is very damaging to careers. It’s hard after dropping out to get back to a successful career. It shouldn’t be. The on-ramp should be there, but often it’s not. And then the part-time work it should be good quality work, but that could result in promotion, but in fact, that is not the case. Ordinarily it’s dumbed-down work compared to what you would have if you work a full-time career, and ordinarily there are limited, if any, promotion possibilities. So you’re on that sidetrack. Well maybe you can get back on again, but your male colleagues who didn’t do that are way ahead and there is this whole cohort of young eager men and women coming along too. So it’s that that’s just one of the turns of the labyrinth is how the family responsibilities are managed by a couple.
Recorded on September 17, 2010
Interviewed by John Cookson
The idea that there is a persistent prejudice against women that keeps them from top roles in society is out of sync with reality.
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