Women Must Face 'Labyrinth' of Challenges to Achieve Leadership Positions,
Says Wellesley Psychology Professor

Oct. 3, 2007
Molly Tarantino , 781-283-2901

Carli CoverWELLESLEY, Mass.— Are men simply better, more natural leaders? Are women’s careers compromised by their responsibilities at home? Statistics are shocking for women who hope to succeed in the working world. Although women occupy 40% of all managerial positions in the United States, only 6% of the Fortune  500’s top executives are female. Of those firms, just 2% have women CEOs.

While women like Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and eBay CEO Meg Whitman have gained access to high-level leadership positions, the number of top female executives still lags far behind men.

Linda Carli, a visiting associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College, and Alice Eagly, professor and chair of psychology at Northwestern University, explain the reasons for this disparity of women in leadership positions in their new book, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2007).

The “glass ceiling,” or the idea that women successfully climb the corporate ladder until they’re blocked just below the summit, has been accepted for the last two decades as the largest obstacle to female advancement in the workplace.

The ceiling has finally shattered, Carli and Eagly say. However, women in powerful roles are still rare and the problem stems from discrimination operating at all levels, not just the top. Women aren’t dealing with a ceiling, they’re facing a labyrinth.

“The labyrinth conveys the idea of a complex journey that entails challenges and offers a goal worth striving for,” the authors say. “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.”

Among the many career barriers women encounter at all levels are prejudice, resistance to women’s leadership, leadership style issues and family demands. For companies that want more female leaders, the obstacles women face must be addressed. The authors suggest these companies institute the following practices:

  • Evaluate and reward women’s productivity by objective results, not by number of hours at work.
  • Avoid having a sole female member on any team. Outnumbered women tend to be ignored by men.
  • Make performance-evaluation criteria explicit, and design evaluation processes to limit the influence of evaluators’ biases.
  • Establish family-friendly human resources practices for both men and women, including flextime, job sharing and telecommuting.

“For women who aspire to attain leadership, routes to this goal exist but can present both unexpected and expected twists and turns,” the authors write.
Carli has conducted extensive research on the effects of gender on women’s leadership; group interaction, communication, and influence; and reactions to adversity, resulting in more than 75 scholarly articles, chapters and presentations. She was the co-editor of a volume of Journal of Social Issues that focused on women leaders.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries.