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From the Concrete Wall to the Glass Ceiling to the Labyrinth: Gendering Leadership for Transformative Change

28 Mar 2017

From the Concrete Wall to the Glass Ceiling to the Labyrinth: Gendering Leadership for Transformative Change
Figures suggest that the gender gap in education has been reversed in almost all developed countries as well as many developing countries, and it could be globally reduced to parity within the next 10 years on current trends. Yet, women lag behind men when it comes to economic opportunities and political representation, particularly in leadership positions.

Luisa Lupo's areas of expertise include public policy, development economics and gender studies. At the time of writing she was an intern with UNRISD's social policy programme and a Master candidate at the Graduate Institute, Geneva

Ensuring women’s "full and effective participation"?

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets ambitious objectives in the realm of gender equality, and target 5.5 recognizes the necessity to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life”. However, only 20 percent of parliamentarians and 18 percent of ministers were women worldwide in 2016. Not to mention that women currently only hold 22 (4.4%) of all CEO positions in the S&P 500 Companies list of the 500 largest companies in the US.

Global trends show that the above-mentioned disparities transcend the North-South dichotomy and that economic development does not go hand in hand with improvements in women’s representation. Innovative policy interventions are thus necessary to address the multi-dimensional drivers—cultural, political, social and economic—that perpetuate women’s exclusion from leadership roles.

Women’s paths to the top

Three metaphors have been used in recent decades to describe women’s path to the top (or lack thereof): the concrete wall (1970s), the glass ceiling (1980s), and the labyrinth (2000s). While the concrete wall epitomizes the patriarchal division of labour, which was reinforced by explicit bans that prevented women from entering the labour force or higher education over the past century, the glass ceiling represents “unseen” discriminatory practices. This metaphor was used to describe biases, particularly in the corporate sector, based on beliefs, attitudes and cultural norms, which prevented women from advancing in their careers beyond certain thresholds. In a report by the U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission in 1995, the glass ceiling was defined as a “deep line of demarcation between those who prosper and those left behind”, a denial of social justice not only affecting women, but also other minorities. The labyrinth, as suggested by Eagly and Carli, implies a way forward. It represents the complexity of women’s paths to leadership, and the advancements that some women achieve despite the obstacles in their way.

Integration on what terms?

Women's leadership is crucial not only because women globally earn on average 24 percent less than men, but also because addressing barriers to women’s leadership could foster women’s empowerment both in the public and private spheres. Progressive policy interventions are needed on several fronts and the private, along with the public sector, can play a key role in this process. Evidence-based research has identified an array of policy interventions that have transformative potential. They include:
  • Temporal flexibility in the labour market, affecting the way jobs are structured and remunerated. Career advancements and increases in earnings often take place to the detriment of a flexible schedule. For this reason, allowing mothers to work part-time, and remain in the labour force rather than exiting has the potential to reduce women’s exclusion from high-paying positions.
  • Quotas, legislated or voluntary, in the public or private sector. Although shifts in attitudes may not be immediate and effects depend on how quotas are implemented, exposure reduces bias, improves perceptions and weakens stereotypes. Evidence suggests that an increase in the number of women in board positions, for example, has positive effects on women’s representation in top-management.
  • Redistribution of care, one of the key principles in the “Triple R Framework” (along with the recognition and reduction of unpaid care and domestic work) explored in the care chapter of the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report. Progressive paternity leave policies and shared parental leave, for example, have the potential to tackle patriarchal stereotypes at the root by changing attitudes and roles within the family.

The integration of women into the labour force alone is not sufficient to close the gender leadership gap if women are trapped in low-paying positions or often have to choose between motherhood and career advancements. In addition, addressing women’s leadership requires an in-depth understanding of how barriers are constructed and reproduced by both individuals and societies. Further research is important to explore the transformative potential of a gender-based approach to leadership, for example examining how female role models affect prejudices and social outcomes, such as educational attainment. Largely because of the availability of data, current studies on gender gaps in the corporate sector are focused on the United States. Overcoming this Western-centric bias is another paramount step in avoiding one-size-fits-all approaches to policy making and research.


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