This entry is a book review about Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders (Eagly & Carli, 20007), a book I found both satisfying and frustrating. The premise of the book is that even though many obviously legal and cultural barriers for women in the workplace have been removed, more subtle challenges (e.g. women still do more housework than men) cause the path to promotion to be more convoluted for women than for men.
I found the book very helpful because it identified many challenges I had personally encountered but did not realize might be gender related. A lot of challenges stem from an unconscious cultural assumption that men are “natural leaders” and, as a corollary, women are “natural caregivers”. Many workplaces assume that a leader should be “firm and decisive”, but that women aren’t expected to behave like that. Even worse, in many situations, if a woman behaves too much like a traditional male leader, she is viewed negatively. What may work well for a man, may not work well for a woman. I mention this because some well-meaning supervisors have told me that I need to be “tougher” with people. The reality is that there are limits to how autocratic a woman can be in most settings – a “softer” approach typically is the best approach.
Other challenges mentioned in the book is that women may miss out on opportunities for social networking if an organizational culture includes too many “masculine” pursuits such as sports or evening happy hours (which could interfere with child care). There are also dominance challenges such as women being interrupted more frequently or men not acknowledging women as the source of an idea (yes, I have experienced both). I think the most interesting challenge was that women were sometimes handed “impossible” assignments. We’re seeing that now in Britain where Theresa May will become the next Prime Minister after her male colleagues in the Party declined to work on a post-Brexit strategy to leave the European Union.
This is rewarding in the sense that I can see that I’m not imagining some of my workplace issues, but also frustrating and dangerous if it leaves me feeling like a victim. The book does not mean to leave women feeling like victims, yet it is a little more focused on fixing the system than providing individual tips other than to balance the “masculine” with the “feminine.”
One highlight of the book is that it brings evidence that the traditional autocratic leadership model is not necessarily the most effective model, and smart male leaders have known that for some time. For men though, being more collaborative is often seen as a sign of intelligence and having good “people skills”, while in women it can be perceived as weakness…unless she is able to balance it out with confidence. In other words, both men and women have to work to strike a balance.
What’s my next step? An obvious one to me is to observe how successful women leaders function. Fortuantely, there are more and more examples in modern America. In fact, I would argue that there have been lots of successful women leaders in many walks of life for centuries, including the military (Joan of Arc). Although most traditional political and public positions of power have been filled by men, there have always been exceptions ranging back to Ancient Egypt (Queens Hatschepsut and Cleopatra). There have also been many very powerful leaders in traditional female places including mothers, nurses (e.g. Florence Nightingale) widows, political wives (e.g. almost all First Ladies) and leaders in female cleric posiitons (e.g. Mother Theresa). In fact there are so many examples, I am amused/outraged that we feel we need to seek them. They are hiding in plain sight.