Women and leadership: Understanding and navigating the labyrinth

woman in maze

When examining the topic of women and leadership one cannot help but notice the gender gap in today’s top leadership positions. Although women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs (Catalyst, 2014), American women lag substantially behind men when it comes to their representation in leadership positions:

  • Woman make-up only 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs (Catalyst, 2013).
  • They hold just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats (Catalyst, 2014).

Given the gender gap in leadership positions, I would like to share findings concerning differences between men and women from the leadership literature, highlight some of the obstacles faced by women pursing leadership positions, and provide factors that may contribute to a woman’s effectiveness as a leader (Eagly & Carli, 2003; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Northouse, 2012).

Research findings:

Leadership effectiveness: Current research shows mixed findings on measures of effectiveness among female and male leaders, although meta-analyses tend to report no differences (Eagly & Carli, 2003; Northouse, 2012; Vecchio, 2002).  To quickly define a meta-analysis, it compares and contrasts results from different studies in the hope of identifying patterns among study results, sources of disagreement among those results, or other interesting relationships that may come to light in the context of multiple studies.

Leadership style: Women lead in a slightly more democratic and participatory style; in regards to behavior they are more likely to use transformational leadership behaviors and contingent reward (Eagly & Carli, 2003; Northouse, 2012; Vecchio, 2002). Men lead in a slightly more autocratic style; when it comes to behavior they are more likely to engage in transactional leadership behaviors (Eagly & Carli, 2003; Northouse, 2012; Vecchio, 2002).

The importance of context: Evaluation and perception is influenced by environment (i.e., industry) (Northouse, 2012; Vecchio, 2002). Male dominated industries (i.e., finance and military) will likely promote more masculine leadership behavior. On the other hand, female dominated industries (i.e., health-care and fashion) will likely promote more feminine leadership behavior.


Obstacles facing women in the workplace today have been described as a “labyrinth”. The labyrinth is a concept described by Eagly’s work that describes a hypothetical rigid barrier that blocks women from the top echelons of power (Martin, 2007). The labyrinth should be equated to the series of complexities, detours, dead ends, and unusual paths taken during a woman’s career.

Two obstacles that are commonly faced are:

Double bind: This is a difficult position for many female leaders. If women try to enact the traits that are seen as “leader-like” – and they tend to be traits that are associated with idealized images of masculinity -then they tend to be respected for that but not necessarily like. In comparison, while women are seen as more stereo-typically feminine by being nurturing in the work place, they then may be liked but not necessarily respected (Eagly & Karau, 2002).

Glass Cliff: Women are more likely to occupy positions that can be described as precarious and thus have a higher risk of failure – either because they are in organizational units that are in crisis or because they are not given the resources and support needed for success (Ryan & Haslam, 2005).

Women may circumvent the labyrinth by considering the following factors that influence leadership effectiveness:

On the individual level: in addition to undertaking leadership development women can use proven communication styles to promote effective negotiations and leadership behaviors (Northouse, 2012).

On the interpersonal level: leaders should work to decrease gender stereotypes between the sexes. Women also need to utilize networking and keep in mind that it is important to include men within informal and business networks (Northouse, 2012).

Within an organization: leaders should push for organizational changes. The culture of many organizations is changing; gendered work assumptions such as the male model of work, the notion of uninterrupted full-time careers, and the separation of work and family are being challenged (Lewis & Cooper, 1999). Although, these changes are happening it is important to note that an organization needs to be ready for women to step into leadership positions.

In society: As a society it is important to bring awareness to gender equality issues in positive and educational ways. The changes needed to overcome some of problems presented in this post can occur only when we are aware of these subtle and disguised prejudices that can occur in the workforce (Northouse, 2012).



Catalyst, (2014) “U.S. Women in Business,” available at http://www. catalyst.org/knowledge/us-women-business (last accessed January 2014). Retrieved from: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/

Catalyst, (2013)  “Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace,” December 10, 2013, available at http://www.catalyst.
org/knowledge/statistical-overview-women-workplace; Colleen Leahey, “Update: Fortune 500 Women CEOs hits a record 20,” CNN, July 18, 2012, available at http://postcards. blogs.fortune.cnn.com/2012/07/18/fortune-500-womenceos-2/. Retrieved from: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2003). The female leadership advantage: An evaluation of the evidence. The leadership quarterly, 14(6), 807-834.

Eagly, A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002). Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological review, 109(3), 573.

Image: http://www.steelbridgeins.com/free-insurance-guides-and-resources/

Lewis, S., & Cooper, C. L. (1999). The work–family research agenda in changing contexts. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 4(4), 382.

Martin, S. (2007). The labyrinth to leadership. Monitor on Psychology, 38(7), 90-91.

Northouse, P. G. (2012). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage Publications.

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.

Vecchio, R. P. (2002). Leadership and gender advantage. The Leadership Quarterly, 13(6), 643-671.


One thought on “Women and leadership: Understanding and navigating the labyrinth

  1. Reblogged this on janeryanblog and commented:
    Future generations of female executive leaders may view gender inequality a social issue of the past. As the Baby Boomers retire and the next generation of leadership saturates organizations and society, the gap between gender and leadership equality will close. The stigma of gender inequality of female leadership shaped by years of traditional beliefs will fade as new generations exceed the old and fresh viewpoints on gender equality flourish.

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