It’s a Labyrinth Out There!

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

The Glass Ceiling“—a transparent but real barrier to professional advancement—is a popular metaphor used when discussing gender equality and the challenges women face in attempting to realize their leadership potential. Although women can see the top positions while moving up, the barrier (which is made up of several different components) prevents them from reaching the highest levels of advancement.

The glass ceiling metaphor has been around for decades. In her 1984 book “The working woman report: succeeding in business in the 80’s” Gay Bryant wrote: “Throughout the corporate world—faster in some industries, slower in others—the door to real power for women has opened. But it is just ajar. Women may already be in middle management, but the steps from there up to the senior hierarchy are likely to be slow and painstakingly small. Partly because corporations are structured as pyramids, with many middle managers trying to move up into the few available spots, and partly because of continuing, though more subtle, discrimination, a lot of women are hitting a “glass ceiling” and finding they can rise no further.


Image credit: Bart Everson, CC BY 2.0

Three decades later, the bottom line may still appear the same. Indeed, a September 2015 report (Women in the Workplace) by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey&Company reveals that despite some progress, women remain underrepresented across organizations—especially at senior levels of leadership—as they face greater obstacles, and a steeper path to advancement. Not surprisingly, the glass ceiling is still an active metaphor used over and over again in the gender equality debate.

But, is the glass ceiling a correct metaphor to describe the problem? And why should we care about correct or incorrect metaphors? Metaphors matter because they are part of the narrative—visually represented stories that describe social situations and hopefully lead to appropriate responses and therefore change. Although the glass ceiling metaphor reflects the narrative promoted for the last few decades, it is now outdated. A more contemporary and correct metaphor is the less popular “labyrinth.”

Alice Eagly and Linda Carli introduced the labyrinth metaphor about 10 years ago to better describe the obstacles and realities women face when they advance on their career path. In an article published in 2007 (Women and the labyrinth of leadership), Eagly and Carli explain: “As a contemporary symbol, it conveys the idea of a complex journey toward a goal worth striving for. Passage through a labyrinth is not simple or direct, but requires persistence, awareness of one’s progress, and a careful analysis of the puzzles that lie ahead. It is this meaning that we intend to convey. For women who aspire to top leadership, routes exist but are full of twists and turns, both unexpected and expected. Because all labyrinths have a viable route to the center, it is understood that goals are attainable. The metaphor acknowledges obstacles but is not ultimately discouraging.”

The glass ceiling as a metaphor suggests that the obstacles to advancement are only at the top of the career ladder. In reality, women encounter challenges at every step of the way, and understanding these challenges is essential to navigate the labyrinth.

What are the current obstacles that women face on their way to leadership roles? An often cited one is the difficulty of reconciling life, family and work, which goes hand in hand with the insufficient understanding and/or acknowledgment of the differences that exist between men and women. There are countless additional challenges—some are clearly articulated and others less well defined; some relate to specific types of organizations and others are shared by all or most of them.

To find effective solutions, we need to identify common and specific challenges, and look at these challenges through the labyrinth lens—the starting position, the maze of walls, and the goal. In other words, we need to learn to walk the labyrinth.


  1. When thinking about the challenges that women face in the work field, I would not have even thought of comparing it to a labyrinth or a glass ceiling. Even though the glass ceiling metaphor has been replaced with the labyrinth metaphor, I think that both metaphors accurately describe women’s point of view when they are working on advancing in their career. Women can see where they want to go (the glass ceiling), but getting there will require lots of unexpected turns (the labyrinth). Even for me growing up with two brothers and one sister, it was always so easy for my brothers to advance to the next step, whatever it was and for me and my sister, we always had to put in a lot more effort to get to the same level as my brothers. Personally, I have seen various accounts where females seem to have to overcome many obstacles that males seem to obtain effortlessly. This would make me not want to work as hard as I saw how much effort was going to be needed and it was also a high possibility that where I ultimately wanted to go, I would not be able to reach or would hit many bumps in the process.

  2. I agree with this post in that it is essential to use proper language, especially when discussing a challenge. The “glass ceiling” metaphor creates an image of an insurmountable barrier – something cannot be overcome regardless of effort. A ceiling is concrete, immovable, and absolute. This gives women the misconception that once they reach a certain point in middle management, there are no hopes of progressing to more senior positions. This, in turn, causes women to accept their positions and refrain from striving for the next step. The “labyrinth”, on the other hand, gives a more realistic picture of the challenges that women face in the workplace. None of the challenges are insurmountable obstacles, but rather provide a unique opportunity to develop a skillset that a man may not need to obtain – for instance, altering their demeanor to appear the right amount of confident yet humble. Balancing the work-life relationship is also a unique challenge for women, but one that can be managed with the right resources and ability to manage multiple priorities. The labyrinth metaphor also provides a more realistic view of the obstacles that women will encounter along their entire professional career, which prepares women more adequately for the journey they will battle the entire length from the bottom to the top.

  3. I cannot relate to article more; my life itself has been a “labyrinth” as well. Labyrinths have only one way out, and other paths are dead-ends; I made decisions and choices which made me pause in my own tracks and wonder if everything was worth what I was working for. I backtracked myself and pondered on where I made the wrong decision. I wandered aimlessly in my college life, not being able to see a way out of my struggles and obstacles. I wanted to break through the labyrinth and just find an exit. There is a saying, “when life gives you lemons, make a lemonade.” I was a type of person when given lemons, I threw them away because it required effort to make a lemonade. Same way with my life as a labyrinth, when I made a decision I regretted and ended up in a dead-end, instead of trying to figure out how to find the right path, I would just sit there and shut myself in my own shell. It took me weeks and even months to get a grip and walk back to try to take the right path this time. This “labyrinth” may be more relatable to women than men in the gender bias and discrimination, but I also believe that this term isn’t limited to simply women. I grew up in a diverse environment surrounded by people with open perspectives who promoted equality among all genders, races, and ethnicity, so I haven’t encountered many people who discriminated against me because I am a female, but I believe I will encounter it sooner or later when I go off into the career field. But as long as I know how to re-track my steps and make a different decision hoping for a different outcome and not a dead-end, I will find a way out of my labyrinth and an exit.

  4. I agree with referring to women’s journey to professional success as a labyrinth rather than a ladder. Obstacles are not simply waiting for us once we reach a certain level of our journeys; they present themselves daily. One key feature of the labyrinth is the difficulty to track the progress made. It can be quite discouraging to feel as though you have not made any progress, and as if attainment of your goals is a long way away. However, with all this knowledge we have now about disparities between men and women in the professional world, we can further the change we need to see. We can uplift other women by sharing our stories and highlighting how far we have come. We can use the statistics and findings of research studies to prove to our employers and colleagues that women are equally qualified and capable to perform in leadership roles. This movement toward equality requires courage and persistence. We can no longer sit back and hope that our discriminatory issues go away over time. Even though many women struggle with confidence in our abilities, we must learn to put to use the advice of several of our Women Lead guest speakers and “fake it until we make it.”

  5. This new metaphor, “labyrinth” couldn’t be more of an accurate term to describe the barriers and disadvantages that women face when reaching the peak of their careers. As a female student in a Women Lead in Science class, we’ve heard so many stories from so many successful speakers whose journey involved struggles. These journeys have begun with barriers and have consistently presented struggles throughout the way. For my own personal experience, I have dealt with internal barriers in which I have made decisions based on my gender and the outcome that I would receive from those around me. For example, one reason that I’ve chosen to pursue a career in pediatrics is because I feel that I would be most suitable working with children. On the other hand I have played softball for 16 years of my life and would love to work in orthopedics. However I know that orthopedics are extremely competitive and the field is mostly filled by white men.

    A leading woman in technology spoke to our class about her field of work. When I asked her how women had to carry themselves in this field, if they had to fit in, and if they lost power when asking for help she gave me a compelling answer. In summary, she told us, if there is something that you don’t know how to do, you should answer in the way that expresses how you will figure it out. You should always have your guard up and expect that when you need help you might get a belittling response. It is as if the men already assume that you need help solely because you are a woman. After receiving this answer, it made me feel doubtful about any career in technology. I would hate to have to go to work around people who are already assuming that I will fail. I would also hate to have to fit in and maybe change my personality in order to be successful.

    Because of these perceptions, these are barriers that would stop me from moving forward in a technology career. Furthermore, I am only a college student and have not reached the challenges of the glass ceiling, so these would be considered labyrinth challenges. My question is, what does it take to diminish these mental barriers in addition to the structural barriers that women face? I think that mental barriers will be diminished when women are uplifted in the work force. I think the only reason that women don’t believe in themselves is because they are consistently placed in situations where a man is telling them they can’t do it, they never receive the benefit of the doubt, and they are trying to succeed in a world where they have already been placed in pre-conceived belittling positions. I definitely feel that mental and structural barriers work hand in hand. Once you fix the structural barriers, the mental ones diminish.

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