The "Glass Ceiling" Is Actually a Labyrinth

Northwestern University professor Alice Eagly says the highest leadership positions today are more open to women than ever—but there are female-specific branches at each career stage that lead many away.

As notable women have reached the highest echelons of business, and as women have surpassed men in higher education, it's tempting to think that the idea of a "glass ceiling" is becoming outdated. But research indicates that prejudice still persists in the workforce in the form of wage, employment and opportunity gaps.


Women currently make up 57% of the students on college campuses, 60% of masters degree recipients and around half of law and medical students and doctoral degree recipients. Women are attending and graduating—and graduating in fewer years—on average, than their male classmates. And according to a recent Washington Post article, some colleges may now be favoring men in the admissions process in order to maintain a reasonable male-to-female ratio on campus.

Yet while women make up 46% of the workforce, according to Catalyst Corporation, they still only make 80 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. And corporate boards remain overwhelmingly male: women make up just 3.6% of CEOs at S&P 500 companies and 12% of large companies don't have a single woman on their board.

The problem, says Alice Eagly, professor of sociology at Northwestern University, is that a strong educational base doesn't always translate to an easy path up the corporate ladder. But that doesn't mean women are being kept from the top directly, she says.

"The glass ceiling has been with us for a while and is a very popular metaphor still," says Eagly. 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."

Eagly says the metaphor "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," at which point the highest level is denied. Instead, "it’s a progressive drop out that occurs for many different reasons." She suggests that a labyrinth is a better model to describe female opportunity: the highest leadership positions are open, but there are branches at each stage that lead many women away from those positions.

But even while women aren't rising to leadership positions with parity, studies of female leaders show they have precisely the managerial style the modern era demands. Eagly says that there is certainly an argument to be made that female leadership is better for business. "You have to factor in the prejudicial factor, but if you look just behaviorally, insofar as we can tell, women, in fact, have a more ideal style, slightly more than men, in terms of what epitomizes what we know is effective."

As well, Eagly notes, several studies have shown a positive relationship in business between more women in high-level positions and increased corporate profits. "It’s not a huge correlation, but it’s there," she says. "It’s there in the modern studies. If you look back 20 or 25 years it wasn’t there." She points out that in some cases this may be that the most profitable companies may simply be hiring more women, and promoting more from within, yet, "If anybody says we can’t add a bunch of women to leadership because you know our profit will fall, you can say well actually the correlation goes the other way."

As problems persist, she says, the structure of business itself is moving away from business models that favor men.  "In a simpler world, a person could sit at the top of an organization, perhaps, and tell people what to do," Eagly says, using the example of Henry Ford dictating design of the first Ford cars and overseeing each possible component. Now, she says, "You need all kinds of expertise and smart people, engineers and designers, and you need to be linked up in a worldwide basis."

"Nobody has that much expertise, so you have to be good at getting the organization going, encouraging the people, being a bit more of a coach to keep those parts going," she says. “The fact is that the nature of management has so profoundly changed in order to be successful for a company it also moves it away from masculinity that is sort of an old fashioned top-down type of leadership to something that is more, by the way, happens to be more culturally favorable to women than the old kind of management."

More Resources

—Eagly, A. "Female Leadership Advantage and Disadvantage: Resolving the Contradictions." Psychology of Women Quarterly 

—Council of Graduate School/Graduate Record Examinations Board, "Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 1999 to 2009."

— The Obama Administration's "Jobs and Economic Security for America's Women Report," October 21, 2010.

— "Payroll By Gender: Who Makes More Money," Intuit Small Business Blog.

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