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Glass ceiling is a barrier, but labyrinth can be solved

“I’m a female manager and I’ve been successful in every management position I’ve held in this company. I see no reason why I won’t be able to move into the senior executive leadership team, but the only problem is there haven’t been any women who have done it before me. What steps should I take to smooth the way and make it easier to become the first?”
While women make up more than 45 percent of the U.S. work force, studies show that there are very few women in senior leadership roles. Only about 6 percent of the highest-paid executives at Fortune 500 companies are women and only about 15 percent of the seats on the boards of directors are held by women.
As one writer for Human Resource Executive Online puts it, corporate America has “done an outstanding job” of cultivating women for mid-level management jobs but for many reasons, these women have not risen to higher ranks. A survey conducted by Catalyst, a research and advisory organization dedicated to advancing women’s opportunities, suggested that women have encountered a number of barriers to advancement, including exclusion from informal networks, gender-based stereotypes and lack of role models.
Years ago, writers for the Wall Street Journal described the problem experienced by women who rose steadily through the ranks but hit an invisible barrier that they couldn’t break through. They referred to it as the “glass ceiling.” In an article last fall in the Harvard Business Review, Alice Eagley, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, and Linda Carli, an associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, disputed that characterization and called it a “labyrinth.”
“The glass ceiling fails to incorporate the complexity and variety of challenges that women can face in their leadership journeys. In truth, women are not turned away only as they reach the penultimate stage of a distinguished career. They disappear in various numbers at many points leading up to that stage,” they wrote.
“Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one’s progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead,” they wrote. “For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected. Because all labyrinths have a viable route to the center, it is understood that goals are attainable. The metaphor acknowledges obstacles but is not ultimately discouraging.”
In an interview, Eagley says she prefers the labyrinth as a metaphor because it encourages women to think.
“It’s more of a puzzle to be solved and that’s a more positive, thoughtful approach. Many barriers can be anticipated and as you look at the contours, you can start to think about them more effectively.”
In your quest for the senior executive suite, you should think about how you can build “social capital,” she says.
“People who have good social capital-who are well linked to others-are more likely to rise.”
Many women find that the demands of family life and the work-family balancing act leave them with less time for socializing and building the kinds of networks that could help them reach the executive suite, she says. Rather than going out with the group from work, many women opt for time with the family.
Eagley suggests thinking of building “social capital” as an investment in your future. Spend more hours getting to know people and attending events that draw people from your organization. It can be very challenging to do this in a male-dominated culture, but it is very important, she says.
“In research data, we often see that women tend to network with other women. It’s important to be linked outward with some influential people,” she says. “If there are no other women up there, and it’s a masculine culture, then you need to figure out how to do that.”
Indeed, one study Eagley and Carli cited in their article showed that fast-track managers “spent relatively more time and effort socializing, politicking and interacting with outsiders than did their less successful counterparts … and did not give much time or attention to the traditional management activities of planning, decision-making and controlling or to the human resource management activities of motivating/reinforcing, staffing, training/developing and managing conflict.”
The study suggested that “social capital is even more necessary to managers’ advancement than the skillful performance of traditional managerial tasks,” they wrote.
How you manage your position-and promote your accomplishments-is also a key factor in your advancement, Eagley says. If you do the job well but in a “narrow sense,” you are more likely to have difficulty advancing.
“People like that are often good managers but not as likely to be promoted.”
You will also want to select mentors with a broad set of interests in mind, Eagley says. Think of different people who can offer you different perspectives and different types of advice. You will want to avoid having only women as mentors. Instead, work with people who are “part of the network” of power in the organization.
Eagley and her co-author suggest that the outlook should be positive for women in your position.
“Labyrinths become infinitely more tractable when seen from above,” they wrote. “When the eye can take in the whole of the puzzle-the starting position, the goal, and the maze of walls-solutions begin to suggest themselves.”

Managers at Work is a bimonthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by e-mail at [email protected]

02/29/08 (C) Rochester Business Journal


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