Through the Labyrinth: Real Answers on How Women Become Leaders


cover of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Center for Public Leadership)Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders (Eagly & Carli, 2007) explores whether the concept of the “glass ceiling” still accurately describes the challenges women face to realize leadership aspirations. The authors propose that the concept no longer applies and offer an alternative metaphor to better capture the complexity of women seeking high-level positions: the labyrinth. They argue that a variety of both obscure and obvious barriers exist for women seeking leadership, rather than the clear cut gender discrimination symbolized by the glass ceiling. In their book, the authors examine leadership theories developed by multiple disciplines to explain what is holding women back from becoming leaders. They provide data from various studies on employment trends as well as insight gathered from interviews with women leaders to assess how true or false these theories apply to contemporary female workers. Each chapter is organized to answer a question regarding the realities women face in responding to obstacles perpetuated by gender discrimination. Written in a non-academic style, the authors also offer ways for women to best negotiate the majority of challenges met when pursuing career advancement in leadership positions in order to realize the book’s goal of showing how women truly can become leaders.

Major Theories Supporting Hypothesis

The authors examine various theories regarding why women have been held back from advancing in the work place. Presumably gone is the concrete wall that symbolized the division of labor that prohibited women from pursuing upper-level positions in previously male-dominated types of industries. With advancements made through the women’s movement, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and evolving affirmative action measures, education and employment barriers have decreased significantly over the last four decades. However, research data continues to show that the majority of women still secure fewer high-level positions than men. Using the glass ceiling metaphor, there appears to be a rigid barrier that obstructs career advancement of women, allowing them to see men rising above them in management and leadership positions while watching themselves and other women in their organizations unable to achieve the same height. It is an invisible obstacle – one that symbolizes discrimination unforeseen by the victim until the barrier is actually felt, making the journey up the leadership ladder disingenuous. It is an interesting visual as one could also theorize that in not giving the barrier a more impenetrable attribute, such as the former concrete wall, the glass barrier can be broken. It conveys the idea that if a woman should shatter the ceiling, she and others around her might be harmed while advancing through the shards – especially in a society that frets over the disruption of male privilege and traditional sexist cultures. However, it is also a metaphor which communicates that although gender is no longer an absolute barrier symbolized by the concrete wall, it still keeps women from passage to high-level positions.

What is holding women back? Denial of opportunities for employment or career advancement based upon gender is now considered unfair and no longer the norm. Qualifications such as experience and education prevail and newer industries are not bound by traditional divisions of labor. Although it is readily acknowledged that successful advancements have been made regarding the status of women in accessing entry level and lower or middle management jobs, theorists draw different conclusions of why men still continue to dominate high-level positions. Since many no longer see the existence of a glass ceiling, conservatives posit that barriers to success for women are due to weak individual agency. Another idea perpetuated by the media is that women really do not have a true desire to acquire leadership positions. Other arguments stem from theories that support the notion that men are more natural leaders than women. Some recall past evolutionary theory that men are better suited for authority as they are hard-wired to be more aggressive based upon a history of reproductive competiveness. Another concept often put forth is that women lack particular masculine personality traits that would otherwise allow them to be effective leaders. However, the authors dismiss these theories and provide alternative thinking to these ideas.

The conservative mindset ignores that the real barriers women face are socially constructed and that organizational structures and persistent stereotypes perpetuate gender discrimination and frustrate career advancement for women – whose desire for leadership is equal to that of men. The authors argue that equal access to career advancement for women is still a problem, remaining barriers are more complex than straight-forward gender discrimination and not all barriers can be completely overcome, especially when intentionally obscured from view. Unlike most men, women are forced to use diverse strategies and thoughtful resolutions in order to realize their leadership goals. The visual of women rising straight up toward the clouds at an organization and then suddenly experiencing the singular, overriding obstacle of gender discrimination as seen in the glass ceiling visual, no longer symbolizes the journey women take seeking leadership. The authors offer that there is no straight or clear path to success in career advancement for women as well as there is not a simple alternative path to take to overcome the gender gap to high-level positions. The authors propose that the labyrinth is a better image to explain the challenges of seeking contemporary leadership.

This labyrinth premise is one that stems from liberal social theory in recognizing that structural constraints create an unequal balance in power and opportunity, contributing to the differences in the ways that women achieve leadership in contrast to men. The various paths to leadership are not only serpentine in effect, but have end points often obscured from view. The walls of the labyrinth tower high above the heads of participants and obstruct the sight of others negotiating the blind alleys and dead ends. If a woman successfully navigates the labyrinth, she and others who made it to the center see only each other and not those who failed to solve the leadership maze (including at which points the careers of others permanently stalled or died). This metaphor also allows for an essential distinction – the labyrinth is organic, and theoretically allows for modifications, albeit difficult to maneuver. Structural systems of organizations may have to be extracted by their roots and replanted to create fairer avenues for success. An organization’s labyrinth walls could be trimmed back a certain height in order to allow more visibility for the participants. However, for the labyrinth’s pattern to be successfully altered, workers and managers – both women and men – have to agree to working toward a progressive evolution of their organization in order to significantly shift the work culture in allowing equal access in pursuing leadership.

In examining whether their visual of a labyrinth can best explain how women become leaders, the authors focus on how women navigate around the major challenges they face. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on five major ones. The first involves how women continue to experience gender discrimination shaped by inaccurate perceptions regarding the ability for women to seek and successfully hold authority – which affects hiring, compensation and promotion practices. The authors describe the second major challenge as a “double bind”. Due to persistent gender stereotypes and prejudices, women risk failure as they are criticized for being either “too” masculine or “too” feminine in their leadership styles. For those who have children, the third challenge of balancing family responsibilities with career can be of paramount concern for working mothers seeking career advancement. Building social capital is the fourth challenge for women as they often fail in not developing crucial professional relationships through networking, which can result in fewer opportunities and paths to high-level positions than men. Lastly, the authors point out that although there are only subtle differences in the leadership skills of women in contrast to men, organizational structures rooted in traditional ideas of the division of labor profoundly affect how women choose to handle authority positions. These challenges and more frustrate not only the navigation of organizational labyrinths to achieve leadership positions, but women’s ability to effectively lead, especially in male-dominated work cultures.

Chapter Highlights Supporting Hypothesis

The authors are both psychologists who analyze not only the contributions of theorists in their field, but that of economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and those dedicated to business management and organizational scholarship. These examinations help uncover how prejudice and discrimination against women still prevail and how male dominance in the workforce may be weakening. Through the use of meta-analysis, similarities and differences in research studies help identify trends and phenomena that shed light on the multi-faceted causes of gender disparities. In interviews with women leaders, insight is offered on how they have successfully negotiated organizational labyrinths to realize their goals. The authors also use media reports to help convey how employment trends are being covered and myths about women in leadership perpetuated.

The first two chapters lay the foundation of the hypothesis. The first chapter begins by providing a historical perspective of women seeking career advancement and the eras described by the metaphors of “concrete wall” and “glass ceiling”. They offer the alternative metaphor of the labyrinth to explain that since obvious denial of employment opportunities, compensation and advancement based solely upon gender is no longer considered acceptable, then there must be less obvious ways that women are being stalled or stopped amid their journeys to leadership. The second chapter lays out the degree to which the gender gap exists in leadership positions in the United States as well as around the world. The authors offer statistics showing that men still dominate leadership positions and discuss how the media talks about women leaders as novelties and how equality between the genders as a distant goal. The authors point out although lower and middle management positions have grown in number for women, upper or elite executive positions are still out of reach. 13% of women and 16% men in the workplace are employed in management, but only 23% of chief executive positions are held by women – with only 4% in Fortune 500 companies.

It is in this second chapter in which arguments begin to support that persistent gender discrimination still explains much of the gender disparity seen in employment practices. Not only does this affect hiring practices and advancement through promotions, but the type of management positions that women are able to secure. The authors identify that one of the barriers to women not securing executive offices is that they are not being hired into line positions where critical strategic business decisions, frustrating their ability to prove themselves worthy of key management roles. Instead, women find career advancement opportunities by serving in more administrative support areas such as public relations, human resources, legal counsel and accounting. Although there has been significant advancement in the last two decades for women to become leaders, the authority in these management positions is often not equal to those held by men.

The authors use chapters three and five to examine how gender discrimination in the workplace is perpetuated. The definition of gender discrimination is used to describe how women are unable to secure equal employment opportunities as men, even when qualifications are equivalent. Claims of how men are more natural leaders than women are rejected by the authors as they provide studies that show there are no differences in leadership opportunities between the genders in small groups, such as the lack of patriarchy consistently found in simple economic communities, as well as in juries and high school organizations. The authors also examine whether there are certain personality characteristics that naturally put men above women as successful leaders. They find that women and men differ little in personality traits that contribute to successful leadership, but that women have a tendency to act more ethically and avoid criminal behavior more than men. However, the authors offer that outdated theories and misperceptions of women’s ability to handle authority continue to do harm in undermining the confidence of women as leaders. To supplement their argument, they turn to both correlational and experimental research studies that demonstrate prejudice against women. Expectations of men and how they are more likely to succeed when given authority affects hiring and promotions of women. In studies on women’s likelihood to attain positions of authority, results show that women (in many cases) are slower than men in becoming managers and wait longer between promotions on managerial levels. Even in female dominated fields, men advance more quickly in that environment.

Chapters six, seven and eight discuss prejudice against female leaders, the introduction of the concept of the “double bind” and how gender discrimination affects the choices made in leadership styles of women. The authors point out that few people actually intend to discriminate, but do make presumptions based upon mental images they have of what would make a good leader. Stereotypes play into social constructs of male and female qualities. Since cultural stereotypes of leadership are associated with masculine traits, stereotypical associations about femininity can block women’s progress towards leadership. Studies show that people view female leaders less favorably than male leaders. Resisting leadership of women results in their lack of influence as authority figures. How does this happen? The authors examine the use of two connotations: communal, which is associated with women, and agentic, which is associated with men. Offering the concept of the “double bind”, they propose that women risk being criticized as being either “too” communal or “too” agentic in their leadership styles. If women leaders are perceived as too nice in their communications and decision making, then they are weak leaders. If seen as too direct or assertive, they risk being perceived as unlikeable to colleagues, employees, managers, customers and other stakeholders and stumble in their career advancement. The paths and tactics that men take to obtain leadership positions often do not work the same for women. The double bind penalizes women for being assertive and directive in leadership, for engaging in self-promotion of achievements or taking credit for accomplishments, especially in masculine domains. As a result, women tend to avoid directive leadership styles to avoid being perceived as too harsh. They choose to be more democratic, participative or collaborative, but are willing to mirror the styles of their male counterparts in management in male-dominated work cultures, especially in those where fewer women are employed. It is also important to note that women are sometimes more successful when engaging in directive leadership similar to male counterparts, but many admit to being forced to do so in conflict with one’s own personality traits. When doing so, women can risk become inauthentic in business relationships – which may also cause failure in leadership.

Chapter four examines whether women seeking to become leaders are impeded by parenting and household responsibilities. The authors find that although male partners of women workers are increasing their responsibilities in these two areas, it is not enough to create an even playing field as the division of labor in the home still exists. Male executives have fewer spouses that are employed in contrast to the female executives. Research dispels the myth that women quit their jobs more frequently than men, but their reasons are more related to meeting family responsibilities than changing or advancing careers. Moreover, women are absent from work more in response to the demands of family resulting in loss of work hours, experience, seniority, income and perception of commitment to the job – frustrating career advancement. Research does not indicate that women desire leadership less, are more likely to pursue easier jobs or that their commitment to organizations is weaker than men. Yet, the research does show that parenting female workers are more likely to interrupt their careers contributing to the mindset that men are more focused on their careers than women. Stereotypes of how a primary parent is a less effective worker coupled with the disproportionate amount of the child-rearing women still shoulder in two-parent heterosexual relationships play into the stress of navigating the labyrinth. “The routes that women take to leadership in the workplace are mot simple or direct but convoluted and frequently obstructed, especially for mothers.” (Eagly & Carli, p. 65)

Chapter nine highlights another major challenge that women face as they journey through an organizational labyrinth: building social capital. Women fail at not developing crucial professional relationships through networking. These business connections allow workers and managers to receive advice, make connections and get help in completing tasks. However, the amount of networking required to achieve social capital equal to male cohorts requires more than the standard work day and often cuts into other obligations outside of work. Yet, without these connections, women can be perceived as less influential, cooperative and legitimate. The choice of paths to leadership narrows as the opportunities that can arise from professional networking for women are not as many as their male colleagues who are more strongly invested in building social capital. Of course, the demand and the means by which to create social capital are intentional by design. The majority of organizations have been created by male leaders who typically set the norms and cultures that favor the interests of male leaders and are not so advantageous to potential female leaders. The organizational culture is at the heart of how the labyrinth is created. It is here that considerable structural change would have to occur for equal access to leadership for women and men.

Chapter nine also highlights one other major challenge: effectively maneuvering in an organizational culture that does not support the career advancement of potential female leaders. Women report that finding a work-life balance can be impossible with extreme time demands and expectations of travel and relocation. Women report experiencing challenges in fitting into male-dominated work cultures – from negotiating around the language and behavior that seems foreign and inauthentic to them to meeting the higher standards that are unfairly placed on women for career advancement. Organizations have also been found to deny women the opportunity to prove themselves of being good leaders by providing few professional challenges or placing them in “glass cliff” situations. These organizational structures contribute to the reason why women, more than men, leave organizations to seek high-level positions in other organizations. When the authors ask whether organizational structures compromise women’s access to leadership and challenge their effectiveness in leading, the answer is “yes!”

How the Hypothesis Relates to Leadership Theory

The authors define a leader as similar to a manager, “a person who exercises authority over other people”. Further clarifying the use of the term “leadership”, they state that it “encompasses leaders who emerge informally in organizations and groups as well as those who hold managerial or governmental roles.” (Eagly & Carli, p. 8) Throughout their book, the authors discuss aspects of leadership theory to help explain how notions exist that men are more naturally predisposed to be leaders, that women have as many advantages as men do in having personality traits that are relevant to good leadership, and how contemporary women are expected to be highly successful as leaders in modern management models.

The Great Man Theory emerged in the first era of leadership theory when researchers took interest in learning how leaders were born (Daft, 2008). Since men overwhelmingly occupied high-level positions when the work began in the 1920s up through the early 1960s, leadership traits and characteristics were associated as being masculine. As a result, most scholarship regarding management and leadership has been developed in response to these earlier studies. An example of this comes from evolutionary psychology, which the authors describe as using “reverse engineering” in its reasoning. Personalities and characteristics of men and women are “inborn psychological adaptations” which reflect evolutionary behavioral patterns of men engaged in reproductive competition. Conclusions are drawn that the behaviors men use to be successful such as being aggressive, dominant or competitive make them naturally able to handle authority. In contrast, women are seen as having an evolution in behavior development with the goals to avoid risk as they fear for their offspring. However, the authors point out that research data does not support the notion that men naturally are authoritative and dominant. Nor does it support that behavior and personality are set firmly in biology, but are affected by behavior learned to act accordingly in ever changing social roles. The authors cite the lack of consistent evidence for a naturally preponderancy of patriarchy in simple societies and small groups. They also argue that traits such as dominance and physical aggressiveness do not naturally enhance leadership effectiveness. However, the theory that men are more natural leaders than women is used to promote ideas of male privilege in holding authority positions. Citing that women lack certain personality traits that men have to effectively lead is another reason why many women are denied the opportunity to lead at higher levels.

To examine whether men have an advantage over women in behavior patterns to be effective leaders, the authors use what psychologists refer to as the “Big Five Personality Traits”. These are traits by which one can use to describe an individual’s personality using five dimensions: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability (neuroticism) and openness to experiences (Daft, 2008). The authors found that there were too few differences between the genders to warrant that one has an advantage over the other in respect to owning traits that predict the emergence or effectiveness of being a leader. Research shows that extraversion, openness to experience and conscientiousness are similar in women and men – the traits that contribute the most to effective leadership behavior. While women do exhibit more agreeable and neurotic tendencies, these traits relate little in predicting leadership success. The authors also cite other personality qualities women have that dispel the notion they do not have what it takes to lead effectively. Research shows that women have a stronger degree of emotional intelligence and empathy than men, which helps in managerial tasks. Although men exhibit more risk taking behavior, women are less likely to engage in unethical and criminal behavior. The authors conclude that beliefs that men are more predisposed to be leaders than women is invalid, and further, that the qualities of being dominant and aggressive is not in line with emerging modern management models. In fact, this is why they feel strongly that women should be both communal and agentic as leaders, as extremely masculine qualities will not work in contemporary organizations – as well as extremely feminine qualities.

In terms of leadership style, the authors feel that women will be emerging as pacesetters in demonstrating how effective organizations should be run. There is much talk of how less autocratic and more democratic styles in management are being used more and that leaders that have qualities that encourage others to be participative and collaborative will excel in such settings. Although both women and men are able to lead well in task-oriented environments, women have a slight advantage when engaging in interpersonal-oriented leadership and are able to move from one style to another depending on the environment, much as the situations presented in Fielder’s Contingency Model (Daft, 2008). Further, research also shows that women are better than men in transformational styles of leadership that encompasses ideas of being a “good coach” or a “good teacher”. Although men are seen as slightly better as transactional leaders, the ability for women to move easily between the two styles is important, as not every situation will be conducive to using continual strategies related to transformational leadership. Since researchers have been encouraging managers to adopt more transformational and collaborative styles in order to be more successful in contemporary organizations, women are expected to excel as leadership trends further evolve. The authors conclude that women should not be denied opportunities to hold positions of authority as studies show that they are quite capable in using effective leadership styles.

Value of the Material Offered by the Authors

What makes the book most valuable to readers is not only do the authors present a comprehensive overview of the challenges of women achieving leadership positions, but how organizations and women can implement strategies for success. First, the authors present how structural changes can help women advance into leadership. Since the organizational structure is the main design of the labyrinth, plans for trimming, root pulling and replanting can begin here. Recommendations are made to create new policies and practices that eliminate discrimination and promote gender equity. These can include promoting work-life balance environments, such as implementing flex work. It can involve reforming recruitment, hiring and promotion practices that make clear that leadership positions are given to those with demonstrated qualifications and not to fulfill quotas. The authors suggest reducing tokenism by creating a critical mass of women in leadership positions, allowing women to access professional development opportunities and being clear on how career advancement can be achieved, especially by using a better job performance evaluation process. In looking at ways to help the organization evolve, it should be recognized that modern managerial jobs are requiring skills similar to coaching and teaching as more work is being done in teams, with a higher degree of democracy rather than autocracy. Men are being encouraged to take on more communal attributes, while women are recommended to develop more agentic ones in order to achieve success in contemporary leadership. “Moving forward with progressive proposals requires activism on the part of those who desire organizations with greater gender integration and families with more equal male and female roles.” (Eagly & Carli, p. 160)

Second, the authors offer advice for women on how to best negotiate organizational labyrinths. They stress two major principles: women should adopt a blended approach of being both agentic and communal, while putting in extra energy in building social capital as their male colleagues. Throughout chapter ten, the authors offer advice to help women navigate their organizational labyrinth. Women are urged to establish exceptional competence as leaders, especially in difficult tasks, and to secure positions in line production in order to be considered more seriously for higher management positions. However difficult the challenges are of establishing and maintaining a successful work-life balance, the authors encourage working mothers to not drop out of the workforce. They suggest that women looking to significantly advance in their careers build enough resources to afford quality child care before embarking on parenthood. The authors call for significant shifts in work cultures that can only be achieved if both women and men become committed to successful work-life balance concepts. However, they also encourage women to not wait for these culture shifts, but to help instigate the change they want to see and create paths to leadership in their organizations for subsequent women to follow.

I felt the book to be a very valuable resource. I think many women in leadership always know that we need to take the time to read about contemporary trends to aid and support us in our work, but we rarely take the time to do it. We may find an article once in a while and attend a workshop conference that focuses on a particular subject, but nothing as comprehensive as this book.I appreciate the use of various methodologies employed to support their hypothesis, especially the use of meta-analysis. The book’s endnotes and references list the research to support their arguments totaling 72 pages. In reading the results of copious studies and the opinions of the authors, I learned that I need to work on my own communal abilities so that I can better engage other women in my advocacy work. Although the authors do not specifically address how women can be turned off by other women using agentic traits in management, I am certain that this is one of my greatest weaknesses. As the contemporary leadership trends have turned more democratic, participative and collaborative in nature, I need to wean myself from using my typical directive leadership style. However, the book also helped me to feel confident in the work that I have accomplished both as a leader and a manager as well as the strategies I have employed to navigate through non-profit labyrinths.


The labyrinth is a far more suitable metaphor than the glass ceiling and realistically describes both the obvious and obscure obstacles women face in seeking leadership positions. This visual allows for women to understand that the journey to leadership does actually have twists and turns in which one can become lost at times and that serpentine responses will be required. One of the most important points made by the authors in the book’s conclusion is that feminism does not have the cultural relevance or collective activism on behalf of working women as it once had. This is why the authors encourage individual agency and present strategies for navigation, as they understand that individual women are finding their way through the labyrinth more or less on their own. Although the authors do not come out and state that women can be just as oppressive as men while their sisters seek career advancement, they do seem to understand that many female leaders feel isolated in our journeys due to the lack of support we experience as we realize our leadership potential. The labyrinth’s organic nature allows for evolution in its design, but its deeply entrenched root system communicates that modifications will take significant and concerted effort. It is a symbol that I hope many other theorists will use in their work.


  • Daft, R. (2008). The leadership experience (4th ed.) Mason, OH: Thomson South-West, Cengage Learning.
  • Eagly, A.H. & Carli, L.L. (2007), Through the labyrinth: the truth about how women become leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Center for Public Leadership)
Author: Alice H. Eagly, Linda L. Carli
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $32.00
Amazon price: $44.07

The Leadership Experience 4th Edition 2008 ISE
Author: Richard L Daft
Binding: Paperback
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