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Research on women’s paths to leadership and the obstacles they encounter seems to have a certain affinity for metaphors to illustrate the mechanisms at play. In this blog post, I will describe and compare some of the most used of these metaphors. As metaphors have the power to influence women’s feelings and ambitions regarding their careers and situation in an organisation, understanding their meaning and implications is of importance (Burkinshaw & White, 2020).
The Glass Ceiling seems to be the most popular metaphor related to women and Leadership. It describes a sort of invisible barrier which prevents women (and minorities) from attaining executive and leadership positions in organisations. This barrier can be a result of unconscious bias and structural discriminatory practices in the corporate world. As Carli & Eagly (2016) point out, the transparent feature of Glass gives further meaning to the metaphor, not only is the barrier invisible so women bump into it when reaching a certain level without former obstructions, but it also allows for a full view of the top, making them aware of their lack of advancement after reaching a penultimate level. As Carli and Eagly (2016) point out the material further suggests that once the glass ceiling is broken, the path is unobstructed for the women following.
The Sticky Floor metaphor was coined by sociologist Catherine White Berheide and is used to describe the difficulties of women getting stuck in low-prestige, low-paying, and low-mobility positions. The Sticky Floor imagery thus refers to women being kept from advancing beyond entry- or low-level positions through external obstacles and discriminatory practices, such as occupational segregation, underpayment of workers in women-dominated industries, and little chance of upward mobility in these occupations. The Sticky Floor thus mirrors the Glass Ceiling in that it keeps women from moving up the career ladder at all, while the Glass Ceiling symbolises the final barrier for women to reach the top.
The Labyrinth imagery was proposed by Eagly and Carli (2007), to describe the complexity of women’s path to leadership positions. The Labyrinth depictures several different paths with leadership position as the goal at the centre. Some paths are dead ends, some are fairly direct and others require taking a lot of turns and persistence. In contrast to the Sticky Floor or Glass Ceiling, the Labyrinth accounts for the possibility of advancement to the top while also depicting challenges at every step of the way not only at the start or towards the end of the career ladder. Furthermore, it accounts for the strong influence of circumstances, thus some paths never lead to the centre, despite the persistence of the person trying to navigate the Labyrinth.
The term Glass Cliff originated from a paper by Ryan and Haslam (2005) on companies in the UK, in which they found that companies that appointed women to their boards were more likely to have had a consistently bad performance in the stock market in the time prior to the appointment. In contrast to the previous terms, the Glass Cliff does not describe obstacles women face to obtain leadership positions, but rather the dangers they face when they reach them. The term Glass Cliff thus describes the phenomenon that women promoted to high profile positions are more likely to get appointed to risky or precarious positions than men (Ryan & Haslam, 2005). The phenomenon seems to also exist outside of the boardrooms, thus Ryan et al. (2010) found that women politicians were the preferred choice to compete for a seat that was described as risky and hard to win, while men were preferred for safe seats.
The different metaphors paint different pictures of the obstacles women face on their path to leadership positions and especially the way to overcome them. Users should be cautious of using these metaphors carelessly, as they might lead to a generalisation and dismiss the individual challenges.
- Carli, L. L., & Eagly, A. H. (2016). Women face a labyrinth: An examination of metaphors for women leaders. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 31(8), 514–527. https://doi.org/10.1108/GM-02-2015-0007
- Carli, L. L., & Eagly, A. H. (2007). https://hbr.org/2007/09/women-and-the-labyrinth-of-leadership
- Burkinshaw, P., & White, K. (2020). Generation, Gender, and Leadership: Metaphors and Images. Frontiers in Education, 5, 517497. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2020.517497
- Berheide, C.W. (1992) “Women Still ‘Stuck’ in Low-Level Jobs.” Women in Public Service, v. 3
- Berheide, C. W. (2013). Sticky floor. In V. Smith (Ed.), Sociology of work: An encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 826-827). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452276199.n292
- Burkinshaw, P., & White, K. (2017). Fixing the women or fixing universities: Women in HE leadership. Administrative Sciences, 7(3), 30
- Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Over-Represented in Precarious Leadership Positions. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 81–90. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x
- Ryan, M. K., Haslam, S. A., & Kulich, C. (2010). Politics and the Glass Cliff: Evidence that Women are Preferentially Selected to Contest Hard-to-Win Seats. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(1), 56–64. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01541.x
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