Review of Through the Labyrinth

By Nicky Griffin



Women who seek leadership positions face difficult obstacles, explains Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli, authors of Through the Labyrinth. Just a few decades back, a woman seeking professional advancement would run into a virtual “concrete wall.” Women could enter the workforce through a narrow band of professions: teacher, salesclerk, secretary, factory worker or nurse. In the 1970s, women began working in a greater variety of jobs and in larger numbers, although traditional career paths still limited their earnings.

Regardless of their credentials, those who wanted to advance encountered societal and organizational constraints. Such obstructions became known collectively as “the glass ceiling,” but that image of an impenetrable barrier no longer portrays women’s career challenges. Instead, envision a labyrinth, a complex and often convoluted path to professional advancement.

When psychologists study successful leaders, they prioritize several apparently gender-neutral traits, such as intelligence and trustworthiness. However, certain leadership characteristics, such as assertiveness and self-confidence, are generally classified as masculine, whereas others, like warmth and supportiveness, are branded as feminine.

These stereotypes place women leaders in a “double bind.” If women leaders seem too firm, people may not like them; if they appear too compassionate, others may see them as weak. Most experts tell women seeking advancement either to exercise more competitive “male” traits or to use their femininity to win at work. However, either approach alone is too simplistic for the contemporary workplace. The authors believe that the path out of this double bind is to adopt a blended approach: “Tough women can gain from being likable; nice women can benefit from being tough.” Women should also “build social capital” and set up supportive networks, including high-ranking male and female mentors.

Women are generally employed for fewer hours after they have children, whereas fathers put in more hours at work. Although slightly more men than women quit managerial jobs, the men generally move to advance their careers rather than to raise kids. Women who leave their jobs to rear children during their prime career-building years usually face substantial career setbacks. They often find it difficult to return to their prior level of pay or authority. The modern emphasis on “intensive parenting,” particularly among the more affluent, imposes extra stress that falls mainly on mothers. Polls say that a majority of Americans believe in sharing parental duties equally, but in most families, women still do a disproportionate share. Research indicates that women today spend more time interacting with their children than their mothers and grandmothers spent with theirs. Moreover, although men handle more household chores than they once did, women still do about 1.7 hours of home chores for each hour men contribute. Men’s greater responsibility for domestic chores is crucial to women’s further advancement.

Women who decide to stay in the workforce after having children can face prejudice in a number of ways. Firstly, the current workweek extends well beyond 40 hours – an onerous burden for any working parent. Secondly, the managerial rotations that many larger companies require for advancement can also create discrimination. Compared with fathers who have homemaker wives, mothers generally are not as free to move, take international posts, or travel frequently. Thirdly, women may get shut out of advancement because they aren’t as available for social networking activities. Individuals with family responsibilities can rarely stop for a beer after hours or go on weekend golf outings with the top brass. Such social discrimination is harder to detect than overt bias, so employees often don’t identify it as a barrier to advancement, although it is.

To change this facet of the modern workplace, women and men need to demand a more humane view of work that does not require prioritizing employment over family. Organizations that are committed to “progressive innovation” can change their value systems to focus on efficiency and balance by rewarding excellent performance instead of time spent at work. Sane schedules boost morale, enhance performance, and build stronger families and communities – all factors that help companies excel.

Additionally, organizations can help keep female employees on the career ladder during their child-raising years by instituting “family-friendly” practices (from flexible hours to telecommuting and on-site childcare). Research at 72 major U.S. companies demonstrated that five years of family-friendly human resource practices generated a higher percentage of female upper-level managers. Further studies indicate that organizations benefit when they advance women. The rewards vary from improved morale to better public relations. A diverse workforce provides broader perspectives and reaches into more client communities. Although the data does not demonstrate a cause-effect relationship, research has shown that companies with a higher percentage of women executives do better on the bottom line. Women still remain underrepresented in corporate leadership, but the upper ranks are gradually opening, particularly in high tech, where CEOs include Meg Whitman at eBay, Anne Mulcahy at Xerox and Patricia Russo at Alcatel-Lucent.

Eagly and Carli, both psychology professors, competently assess bias in the workplace and evaluate the impact of stereotypes on women’s advancement. They offer common-sense strategies that women can pursue for advancement: Adopt a balanced management style, strive for work-and-home parity and build a supportive social network. If your organization wants to leverage underutilized talent by improving opportunities for women, start by asking whether it erects barriers that obstruct women’s progress and then learn how to remove those obstacles. This book delivers solid information, though its distinct perspective may sometimes read as advocacy as well as science. Women seeking career growth will find valuable counsel here.

Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli. Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. Harvard Business School Press, 2007. List Price: $29.95. ISBN 13: 978-1422116913.

Nicky Griffin is an editor at getAbstract, the world’s leading provider of business book summaries.