Friday, December 07, 2007

Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership

“When you put all the pieces together, a new picture emerges for why women don’t make it into the C-suite. It’s not the glass ceiling, but the sum of many obstacles along the way.”

Alice H. Eagly & Linda L. Carli in their book "Through the Labyrinth" identified that Women occupy 40% of all managerial positions in the United States. Where only 6% of the Fortune 500's top executives are female, and just 2% of those firms have women CEOs. "We've long blamed such numbers on the "glass ceiling," notion that women successfully climb the corporate hierarchy until they're blocked just below the summit. But the problem stems from discrimination operating at all ranks, not just the top,"

To move more women into the corporate executive suite, one must attack all barriers to advancement simultaneously. Such as: "Prepare women for line management with demanding assignments. Use objective criteria to measure performance. And give working mothers additional time to prove themselves worthy of promotion."

They explain the need for Metaphors since they matter because they are part of the storytelling that can compel change ... Eagly & Carli goes on to redefine a better metaphor for what confronts women in their professional endeavors naming it "The Labyrinth". Because of its image with a long and varied history in ancient Greece, India, Nepal, native North and South America, medieval Europe, and elsewhere. As a contemporary symbol, it conveys the idea of a complex journey toward a goal worth striving for.

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. It is this meaning that they convey in "Through the Labyrinth".

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.

Times have changed, however, and the glass ceiling metaphor is now more wrong than right. For one thing, it describes an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations. The fact that there have been female chief executives, university presidents, state governors, and presidents of nations gives the lie to that charge. At the same time, the metaphor implies that women and men have equal access to entry- and midlevel positions. They do not.

The image of a transparent obstruction also suggests that women are being misled about their opportunities, because the impediment is not easy for them to see from a distance. But some impediments are not subtle. Worst of all, by depicting a single, unvarying obstacle, 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.

Eagly & Carli explains that tackling the obstacles to women's progress, will increase a firm's competitive prowess. "If we can understand the various barriers that make up this labyrinth, and how some women find their way around them, we can work more effectively to improve the situation, and understand the obstructions that women run up against?"

They recommend these strategies for increasing the number of women in top positions:

Understand the Career Barriers Women Encounter
Extensive academic and government research studies identify these obstacles:

* Prejudice: Men are promoted more quickly than women with equivalent qualifications, even in traditionally female settings such as nursing and education.

* Resistance to women's leadership: People view successful female managers as more deceitful, pushy, selfish, and abrasive than successful male managers.

* Leadership style issues: Many female leaders struggle to reconcile qualities people prefer in women (compassion for others) with qualities people think leaders need to succeed (assertion and control).

* Family demands: Women are still the ones who interrupt their careers to handle work/family trade-offs. Overloaded, they lack time to engage in the social networking essential to advancement.

Intervene on Multiple Fronts

Because of the interconnectedness of obstacles women face, companies that want more women leaders need to apply a variety of tactics simultaneously:

* Evaluate and reward women's productivity by objective results, not by "number of hours at work."

* Make performance-evaluation criteria explicit, and design evaluation processes to limit the influence of evaluators' biases.

* Instead of relying on informal social networks and referrals to fill positions, use open-recruitment tools such as advertising and employment agencies.

* Avoid having a sole female member on any team. Outnumbered, women tend to be ignored by men.

* Encourage well-placed, widely esteemed individuals to mentor women.

* Ensure a critical mass of women in executive positions to head off problems that come with tokenism. Women's identities as women will become less salient to colleagues than their individual competencies.

* Give women demanding developmental job experiences to train them for leadership positions.

* Establish family-friendly HR practices (including flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting). You'll help women stay in their jobs while rearing children, allow them to build social capital, and enable them eventually to compete for higher positions. Encourage men to participate in family-friendly benefits, too (for example, by providing paternity leave). When only women participate, their careers suffer because companies expect them to be off the job while exercising those options.

* Give employees with significant parental responsibilities more time to show they're qualified for promotion. Parents may need a year or two more than childless professionals.

* Establish alumni programs for women who need to step away from the workforce. Then tap their expertise to show that returning is possible. Consulting giant Booz Allen, for example, sees its alumni as a source of subcontractors.

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