Women have remained rare in the highest positions of power, despite the profound changes that have taken place in the their status. In most Western countries, women are attaining university degrees at higher rates than men. They have greatly increased their participation in the labor force and have made substantial wage gains. Nevertheless, at the highest levels of leadership in politics and in business, there are still few women. Even at lower levels of leadership they are not present in proportion to their numbers in the feeder pools of eligible persons. They do not rise as fast as men, given the same qualifications, and they disappear from demanding careers in various numbers at many points leading up to top positions.
What causes women's deficit of power and authority? Ever since the term "glass ceiling" appeared on the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 1986, the idea of an invisible barrier at high levels has been the favorite explanation. However, this glass ceiling metaphor no longer has much merit. It is clear that the impediments women face do not consist of a single, absolute barrier at a high level in organizations.
Given the commitment to equality of opportunity that exists in many nations, it may seem implausible that discrimination is part of the problem. But it is still present. To understand how discrimination comes about, it is necessary to gain insight into the psychology that underlies it. As research has demonstrated, people unconsciously and automatically form different mental associations about men and women, and these ideas come to mind in the presence of individuals. These stereotypes characterize women as warm, nice, and considerate, men as directive, competent, and competitive. Because people's beliefs about leaders are more similar to their beliefs about men than those about women, they assume that women are generally less qualified than men for leadership, especially for roles that women have rarely occupied. People typically have little sense that their thinking about individuals is affected by these ideas about gender and leadership.
These stereotypes make it more difficult for women than men to attain leadership roles. Because people have generally assumed that women have less leadership ability than men, women have the burden of proving themselves by performing beyond expectations if they want to rise to higher positions. Yet, meeting expectations is complicated for women: They are expected to be warm and nice yet as leaders to be forceful and decisive. These expectations create a double bind. Women who display a strong, decisive style of leadership may be seen as competent but can be disliked and lack influence because they are perceived to lack warmth. Women who display a warm, supportive style of leadership may be disregarded and lack influence because they are perceived as not competently taking charge.
Some women do overcome these challenges by finding an appropriate and effective leadership style. So, how do women go about leading? Although the differences in the leadership styles of men and women are not large, the available research has shown that women leaders typically display a style that is more democratic and participative, whereas men have a more autocratic, command-and-control style. Compared with men, women also display more transformational leadership, which involves leading by example, motivating others, encouraging their creativity, and offering them supportive mentoring. Women, compared with men, also rely more on rewards and less on punishment to motivate subordinates.
The good news for women is that these aspects of leadership style are generally consistent with modern ideas about good managerial practices and are in fact correlated with effectiveness. Women's styles can also resolve some of the challenges created by the double bind because they combine assertive competence with supportive mentoring and warmth.
In general, research reveals a mixed picture for women. Even though women have far more access to leadership roles than at any other period in history, they still face some discrimination. Despite much greater acceptance of women as leaders, some skepticism remains, and more people say that they would prefer a male over a female boss. Other impediments follow from organizations' norms and culture – for example, the expectation that fast-track employees spend very long hours in the workplace, a practice that makes it difficult to meet family obligations.
What is an appropriate contemporary metaphor to capture the situation faced by women who aspire to leadership? I have proposed that an appropriate metaphor is labyrinth. This symbol conveys the idea of a complex journey toward a goal worth striving for. Progress through a labyrinth requires persistence and analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead. Labyrinths can present expected and unexpected challenges, but they do offer a route to the center. In that sense, women no longer face absolute barriers but rather impediments that can often be resolved through thoughtful problem-solving and careful negotiation.
Alice Eagly is Professor of Psychology, James Padilla Chair of Arts and Sciences, and Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.