Will Hillary bump her head?

The glass ceiling may be old news, but women still have a slippery road to the top, according to author Alice Eagly.

Published November 16, 2007 3:05PM (EST)

Female leaders from around the world are converging on New York this weekend for the International Women Leaders Global Security Summit. Twenty years ago such an event would've been unimaginable, and the summit has particular resonance in our current political moment, as Sen. Hillary Clinton gears up to make a charge at what Maureen Dowd terms "the Oval glass ceiling." But as women win high office internationally and continue to rise within businesses domestically, you have to wonder if the glass ceiling metaphor is still accurate. Psychology professors Alice H. Eagly and Linda L. Carli would argue no. Their new book, "Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders," dismantles the staid glass ceiling metaphor and offers fresh ways of understanding women's career paths. Eagly spoke to Salon by phone to discuss women's hurdle-strewn track to the top.

Recently Argentina elected Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to succeed her husband as president. When Kirchner assumes office there will be two women presidents in South America. Why is it that we're still debating whether America is "ready" for a woman president while other countries are electing women?

In some countries family does trump gender: Indira Gandhi was Nehru's daughter, [Benazir] Bhutto is the daughter of a famous politician who was assassinated. In other cases they have made it on their own: The president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, was not any president's wife or daughter. She's one of those cases where the country had been very troubled. Similarly Liberia, with all its civil war, has a woman president. And so sometimes the woman comes in with more of a maternal image: The country now needs the peace and harmony that a woman might be able to bring.

Women have a better chance in a parliamentary system because they come up through the party and are put forth by the party in a much more direct way than in the U.S., where it's the electorate. And in most Western countries there are quotas for women in parliaments, which ensures women access to parliamentary seats from which they can rise in the party. We have no quotas in the United States and we're not about to get any, so it's harder for women.

Is Hillary Clinton's career trajectory typical or atypical of women's situations?

I think that there's lots of typicality to it. One thing we talk about a lot in the book is the double bind, how on one hand women are supposed to be good leaders -- so they're supposed to be strong and take charge -- and on the other hand people worry, "Is she nice enough? Is she too tough? Is she cold?" We don't discuss the warmth of Mayor Giuliani, or whether he loves children. So you see her struggling with that. She tried jokes and people reacted badly, and then she tried laughing more and people criticized her laugh.

It does illustrate that women often get ahead in ways that are different, unusual. Who would have thought that when she became first lady initially that would be a route to being a senator? Or that that would be a route to being a presidential candidate and possibly president?

Attractiveness also plays a role in women's success?

Physical attractiveness is a mixed blessing in terms of rising to a leadership position because beautiful women are regarded as more feminine than more average-looking women. Some studies have shown that a more average-looking woman, compared with a beautiful woman, would be seen as more appropriate for a managerial or a leadership role.

Are women receiving adequate preparation to negotiate the labyrinth?

I think in general not. Young women, for instance, might have the mistaken notion that discrimination is a thing of the past; there's a lot of social science data that will tell you that that's not true.

They may believe that dropping one's career merely for a few years doesn't do much harm to their career. All social science data will tell you that actually that's not true, that it actually is a huge hit in terms of career for the typical woman. They may not be aware of stereotyping that takes place in the workplace -- it would be good to have some notions about how that works so as not to be surprised when you get a very negative reaction from people when you're trying to be tough. But these issues aren't discussed as much as they were a number of years ago.

You argue in your book that the glass ceiling metaphor no longer applies to women in the workplace. You offer, in its stead, the labyrinth. Why is this a more accurate metaphor?

The notion is that there's a barrier at a specific high level, that women are let in but then aren't allowed to rise to high levels at organizations. I think that that's a great simplification. For one thing, some women do rise to the top, obviously. But research shows that really there's a falling away of women at all levels in organizations -- it's not just near the top. Women's careers move more slowly than men's at all levels; it's not as if there's a simple one kind of barrier at one level. So the labyrinth metaphor that we offer in our book conveys that there are twists and turns in labyrinths of various kinds but there is a way to the center. It's a more hopeful metaphor because it does point to the fact that there are routes to high positions.

By Megan Doll

Megan Doll is a former Salon editorial fellow.

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