Glass Ceiling or Labyrinth?

The concept of the glass ceiling was introduced in 1986 in a Wall Street Journal article by journalists Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt.  In that article, they stated, “even those women who rose steadily through the ranks, eventually crashed into an invisible barrier.  The executive suite seemed within their grasp, but they just couldn’t break through the glass ceiling.”[1]  It was a metaphor that immediately caught fire because it resonated so concretely with the experience many women had in the workforce.  This image of a glass ceiling was extremely helpful in giving voice to the experience of women in the 80’s and 890’s but the metaphor is now dated and misleading.  Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, in their book Through the Labyrinth offer 7 reasons why this metaphor is no longer works.

  1. It erroneously implies that women have equal access to entry-level positions.

  2. It erroneously assumes the presence of an absolute barrier at a specific high level in organizations.

  3. It erroneously suggests that all barriers to women are difficult to detect and therefore unforeseen.

  4. It erroneously assumes that there exists a single, homogeneous barrier and thereby ignores the complexity and variety of obstacles that women leaders can face.

  5. It fails to recognize the diverse strategies that women devise to become leaders.

  6. It precludes the possibility that women can overcome barriers and become leaders.

  7. It fails to suggest that thoughtful problem solving can facilitate women’s paths to leadership.[2]

Eagly and Carli offer a different metaphor, they state, “with continuing change, the obstacles that women face have become more surmountable, at least by some women some of the time.  Paths to the top exist, and some women find them.  The successful routes can be difficult to discover, however, and therefore we label these circuitous paths a labyrinth.”[3]  This labyrinth of leadership and success can be difficult to navigate, and many roadblocks pop up forcing women to find new routes.

When people ask me how I could still be seeking full-ordination after 18 years in ministry work I often tell them that I went through the process backward but, in reality, it is the typical way that women find their way in any career.  Navigating less obvious forms of sexism, such as resistance to women’s leadership due to psychological or social biases, family responsibilities, the perceptions of single and married women, are among several roadblocks that Eagly and Carli discuss and are just a few of the challenges that women clergy face in the local church.

My experience of going the wrong way through the process of ordination is not strange or different, but rather normal for women in most fields.   Often what we classify as the ‘typical’ route to leadership and authority is really just the ‘typical’ route for men.  Most male clergy graduate from college, then enter seminary soon after and then begin to assume leadership in the local church.  For a United Methodist pastor, this path might involve quite a few moves to different parts of the conference, but each move typically is to a church with higher attendance and a higher salary, which would add to the pastor’s influence and relative power within the conference.  Recently, there has been an increase in second career pastors, but often their route is similar.  The male path is ordinarily a straight inclining line.

Women follow a different path.  Their journey often involves staying close to a specific geographical area, and they have periods where they leave the ministry in the local church, either to stay home with children or to work in extension ministry or to work part-time as an associate.  Thus, what is typical for male clergy is atypical for female clergy. 

Not only is their career trajectory different, but within each church women also seem to face roadblocks.   Reverend Karen Oliveto, a United Methodist pastor, noted in a 2015 article that, “In the larger church, for women, authority isn’t automatically earned by the office. It has to be earned because there’s a scrutiny of women’s leadership.”[4]  In the local church, men enter a position with a certain amount of positional power.  Women, on the other hand, are awarded limited positional power, since many questions and resist women in positions of power and authority both inside and outside the church walls.  Women must spend time building their relational power so that they can earn the full authority ordinarily afforded their position in the church.  Due to a delay in receiving positional power and the anxiety a community faces when a woman begins leading a church, women often need to lead change within the local church at a slower pace than their male counterparts.  This is just one of the many-layered landmines and pitfalls of being a woman in a place of authority and power.

While the path for women is often winding it can lead to success, it will just take some creative work.  When I think about how I lead or how I organize my day I am often following male patterns.  My mental image of the typical workday or career path is really just typical for most men.  Knowing this helps me to step back from the perception of what is typical so that I can create or find a way that is more typical of my experience and challenges.  For example pastors are often asked about their practice of Sabbath.  It has long been assumed that all Christians, but especially pastors should have a day set aside.  That sounds great, and many male pastors tell me when they get home from church they take a nice long nap.  I have four children when I get home from church I switch into my mom role.  Furthermore, sometimes my office is more of a Sabbath space than my home (this was especially during those teething years!).   We have long defined Sabbath in male terms.  As a woman with children, my Sabbath looks very different from many of my male colleagues.  I prefer to think of Sabbath in more daily terms.  I look for Sabbath practices and moments in the midst of my crazy days.  And while that may not be typical, it is typical for many women I know.

What happens when we begin thinking about our work day and home life and career trajectory outside what we think of as typical.  The metaphor of the labyrinth allows us to redefine the typical on our own terms. 

[1] Quote found in Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, Through the Labyrinth: the truth about how women become leaders (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2007), 4.

[2] Eagly and Carli, Through the Labyrinth, 7.

[3] Eagly and Carli, Through the Labyrinth, 6.

[4] Heather Hahn, “How thick is the stained-glass ceiling?” December 10, 2015,

Gage HuntComment