Labyrinth Alice Eagley | Coaching & Mentoring | Professionelle

LabyrinthWomen in leadership seems to be the theme of February for me.  Earlier in the month I attended a two day retreat as part of the one-year Women in Leadership programme that the University of Auckland runs to increase the number of women in leadership positions at the University. Since the inception of the programme over ten years ago, the numbers of women in senior management positions has increased significantly. But why is this programme necessary? Why aren’t there already women in leadership positions in the same proportion as men?

Alice Eagly

As a 300-strong crowd packed into the University of Auckland Business School last Tuesday night to hear Dr Alice Eagly speak on the topic, it was clear that this is an issue also occupying the minds of many others. The crowd was mixed, but included a significant contingent of Human Resources professionals from large organisations, there to gain insights about increasing the numbers of women in leadership.

If this is an issue that you have read about, then you’re likely to be familiar with Alice Eagly’s work – whether you know her by name or not. Dr Eagly has devoted her academic career to the study of women in leadership, looking at why the proportion of women in leadership positions is low, whether that is a problem and how to rectify it.

The why

Why is it that we don’t have many women leaders? Is the glass ceiling real? Since the metaphor appeared in the Wall Street journal in 1986, it has certainly embedded itself in our vernacular. “It’s a bad metaphor” says Eagly. The glass ceiling implies that there are no challenges for women until a certain point, and then that there is an absolute barrier. Instead, Eagly proposes the labyrinth; a tricky journey with challenges the whole way along. You have to be smart, persistent and resilient to make it through, but is it is possible – think Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel, Helen Clark.

Glass CeilingThe biggest difficulty women face in progressing to leadership positions is the incongruity between the cultural stereotypes of being a woman and being a leader. According to the cultural stereotypes, a leader is self-confident, assertive, and takes charge. A man is dominant, assertive and takes charge. Conversely, a woman is nice, caring, socially skilled and sensitive. This means that there is an automatic prejudice that operates against a woman being a leader; our schemas of a woman and a leader do not match up as well as our schemes of a man and a leader. In addition, once a woman becomes a leader, she faces a double bind, stuck between the expectation to be nice (as a woman) and be tough (as a leader).

The (so) what?

Though Eagly herself sees fairness as a valid reason to equalise the playing field, she recognises that others need data to be convinced. Early correlational data showed that having more women in senior positions lead to more profits, and ever since, the business case has often been made for having more women in leadership.

The bad news, says Eagly, is that it is not so straightforward. Looking at the data more closely, it is far from certain that simply having women in leadership improves the bottom line. The results are mixed; some subsequent studies have shown that having women in leadership makes no difference, some have shown that companies with more women leaders do worse, and others have shown they do better but only in certain industries. Then there is the argument that diverse teams produce better results. This is true if the team have a diversity of skills and background, but as it turns out, diversity of gender alone does not produce better results.

At this point I became worried. I have pitched the business case for diversity myself, and I know a number of others who rely heavily upon it. ‘Where does this leave us?’ I thought – especially in a world that requires a business case to develop any new initiatives.


Then rather tongue in cheek, Eagly asks whether the world would be a better place with more women in leadership. There was knowing laughter from both men and women in the audience. In a US poll in 2013, 65% of people believed that the country would be better off if there were more women in political office, and 64% believed that the country would be better off with more women in senior positions in business.

Indeed, other studies have shown that women are more benevolent and socially compassionate. Corporate boards with women on them tend to carry out more philanthropy and have a stronger sense of corporate responsibility. During the financial crisis, companies with women in leadership retained more staff. Female politicians tend to focus more energy on causes for the social good. It is better for the world if there are more women leaders.

The how (to fix it) #1

Eagly proposes two ways to fix the incongruity problem. The first is for the conception of leadership to become less agentic, less masculine.

Last week during the leadership retreat, I sat in a room with 25 amazing women participants and brainstormed the traits of leaders. I expected to hear the traditional masculine ideals of leadership – assertive, dominant, self-confident. Instead, the words that went up on the whiteboard were traits like altruism, inclusivity, vulnerability and respect. I wondered in that moment whether this was because women had a different idea about what leadership was, or whether the idea of leadership was changing. Eagly says it is both.

Studies have shown that women tend to have a more ‘transformational’ style of leadership. Transformational leaders provide a vision and motivation to a team, build deeper relationships and consult with team members. The style relies less on agentic masculine traits and more on communal feminine traits, and it is becoming the most favoured type of leadership. If the faltering business case was the bad news, this is the good news – that with a changing paradigm of leadership that sits more comfortably with the stereotype of feminine traits, there should be less bias working against woman leaders.

The how (to fix it) #2

The second way to fix the incongruity is for women to become more ambitious and assertive – to better fulfil the more agentic ideals of leadership. It seems that this is also happening. Data suggests that women are ‘leaning in’ and speaking up more, and now have more motivation than men to progress to leadership positions.

So it seems the tides are turning. The challenges are still there, but perhaps some of the labyrinth walls are being lowered.


Amanda Clinton is currently working as the Women in Engineering Adviser at the University of Auckland, inspiring and empowering women to thrive in Engineering. She is passionate about encouraging all young women to find and realise their aspirations. Amanda is the current Board Secretary for Professionelle, and is working to develop the Foundation’s offering to younger women.

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