Article: Breaking the Glass Ceiling - The Rise of Women as Leaders


Breaking the Glass Ceiling - The Rise of Women as Leaders

The fact of women's rising status raises questions about how some women succeed and how organizations and societies move towards the inclusion of women in positions of authority, reveals Alice H. Eagly & Linda L. Carli
Breaking the Glass Ceiling - The Rise of Women as Leaders

India provides a prime example of women's rise to high office with Indira Gandhi having served as the Prime Minister


Despite this progress, women, in all nations, have a long way to go before achieving equality with men


The fact of women’s rising status raises questions about how some women succeed and how organizations and societies move towards the inclusion of women in positions of authority reveals Alice H. Eagly & Linda L. Carli

Not long ago, it was popularto describe women as facing a glass ceiling in their careers. This solid barrier blocked women from rising to high positions. However, much has changed since then.

Today, women have become the face of social change.

Be it developed or developing nations, women are rising to positions of greater responsibility and leadership, and no longer face monolithic roadblocks that thoroughly obstruct their access to positions of authority. Some women make it to very high positions even as corporate CEOs, Heads of important universities, powerful government ministers, and occasionally as Heads of State. India provides a prime example of women’s rise to high office with Indira Gandhi having served as the Prime Minister for many years and now women like Chanda Kochhar and Kiran Mazumdar Shaw donning mantles of corporate leaders and successful entrepreneurs. In the United States, these changes are symbolized by Hillary Clinton’s current role of Secretary of State and her near-successful race to become the Democratic Party’s Presidential candidate.

The presence of a few women in high political and corporate offices has however not been accompanied by a rapid rise in the status of Indian women in society. Nevertheless, the forces that are raising women’s status in the West have begun to act in India as well. In many Western nations, women have gradually come to surpass men in education. Across all organizations in the United States, 51% of those in professional & management positions and 23% of chief executives are women. Women make up 32% of employed workers in India. Despite this progress, women, in all nations, have a long way to go before achieving equality with men. Change is uneven, faster in some organizations and sectors of the economy than in others, and much faster in some nations than other nations.

In the United States, women are now earning 58 percent of bachelor’s degrees in universities as well as the majority of more advanced degrees. In India, women hold one third of non-technical degrees and 28 percent of technical or post-graduate degrees.

Attitudes Towards Women as Leaders

For major progress in gender equality, attitude of people at large towards women as leaders and managers has to change. A gradual change can be observed around the world. In the United States, when pollsters ask people whether they would prefer to work for a male or a female boss, most people today indicate that they have no preference or that gender does not matter. However, it is still true that more people prefer a male boss than a female one.

The roots of this preference (for men in authority) lie in the characteristics that people commonly ascribe to women, men, and leaders. Cultural stereotypes can make it seem that women do not have ‘what it takes’ for important leadership roles. People predominantly associate women to communal qualities such as ‘being nice’, socially skilled, and compassionate but more agentic qualities such as being assertive, dominant, and competitive are still connected to men. These more masculine qualities have a fairly close match to the qualities that people think lead to success as a leader. However, this tendency for cultural stereotypes to portray leaders as more like men than women is reducing all over the world. Leadership roles are increasingly viewed as relatively androgynous, requiring a good measure of the communal qualities ascribed to women along with the agentic qualities ascribed to men.

This shift in stereotypes reflects social change. The more people see women in visible and important leadership positions, the more they shift their attitudes to view women as more agentic and able to lead.

Good Leadership in Contemporary Organizations

The trend towards more androgynous leadership is not only good for leaders, but also for organizations. In many contexts, top-down, command-and-control leaders no longer provide the most effective or admired type of leadership. Scholars of leadership have demonstrated that effective leaders are able to inspire, motivate, and mentor their followers. Such leaders are good role models and symbolize the best qualities of their organization. They generally use a positive approach of rewarding others for cooperation and good contributions rather than a negative approach of reprimanding others for what they do wrong. This type of leadership, which is often called ‘transformational leadership’, is based on interpersonal exchanges and dialogues between leaders and followers that empower all workers within organizations to take responsibility for adapting to challenges.

Studies show that female managers tend to adopt this transformational style somewhat more than men do. In fact, women generally manifest a relatively androgynous style that incorporates culturally masculine and feminine elements. Women are thus, somewhat more democratic than men in their leadership style and are concerned with mentoring and development needs of colleagues.

More than men, women adopt a positive managerial approach that trades on rewards rather than a negative approach that trades on reprimands.

Behaviour of women leaders would appear to give them an advantage because the ways in which they differ from male leaders are associated with effectiveness. Evidence of the effectiveness of female leaders comes from studies relating organizations’ financial performance to the percentage of women in executive positions. Studies of large American and European corporations have found that having more women in executive positions or on board of directors is associated with better financial outcomes.

Despite these encouraging findings, it is also true that a leader’s success depends on the context in which they lead. Contexts that are very masculine may be disadvantageous for women. For example, research has shown that men were more effective than women in roles usually held by men, especially in military settings. In contrast, women were more effective in less male-dominated settings, such as in education and government.
Although these results imply that male and female leaders perform equally well overall, sometimes effectiveness ratings are tainted by prejudice and discrimination because male and female leaders can be treated differently in spite of comparable performance.

Women Overcoming Challenges

The fact of women’s rising status raises questions about how some women succeed and how organizations and societies move towards the inclusion of women in positions of authority. In a book that we have written on these matters, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders, we use the metaphor of a labyrinth to describe the situation faced by aspiring women. With intelligence and a bit of luck, it is possible to make one’s way through this labyrinth.

Women can encounter complex challenges in the labyrinth as compared to men, who in general enjoy a relatively straight path to authority and do not go through the labyrinth as experienced by women.
In terms of everyday workplace behavior, women generally gain from blending agency and communion — the masculine and the feminine. By doing so, they show that they are sufficiently directive and assertive to be leaders, and that they also possess the warmth and sociability that women are expected to display. This behavioral strategy can also help women build the workplace social capital that organizations lack. Career success requires being mentored, welcomed in networks and included in relationships that foster advancement.
Women who advance in their careers also finesse work-life problems. Attaining a successful career along with a successful family life requires negotiating competing demands of work and family. Doing this skillfully is life’s greatest challenge for many women, and good outcomes can be especially elusive for women who do not share domestic responsibilities equitably with their life partners.

Negotiating the labyrinth of career challenges can be regarded as women’s problem, but, at the same time, it is also the problem of the organizations that present impediments to women. There are many sensible organizational innovations that foster progressive change. Unbiased performance evaluations are essential. Creating networking and mentoring programs for women is also beneficial. And flexibility in the timing and mode of meeting workplace demands is helpful as well. Organizations need to try out innovations that can make them as welcoming to women as to men.

Change towards gender equality is not a continuous march on a straight road. Instead, social change requires individual commitment and collective struggle. As women gain greater equality, a portion of people react against these changes, producing backlash. Some people long for familiar, traditional arrangements when men took charge and women followed their lead. For women, progressive change requires countering these backward-looking sentiments and concentrating on moving through the labyrinth of career challenges.

Linda L. Carli, is a social psychologist and faculty member at Wellesley College since 1991. Her research focuses on the effects of gender on women’s leadership, group interaction, communication, influence, and reactions to adversity.

Alice Eagly is Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Northwestern University. She received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan. Her research interests include the study of gender, attitudes, prejudice, stereotyping, and leadership.

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Topics: Diversity, Leadership

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