Chutes and Ladders

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Donna J. Bear

In the children's board game Chutes and Ladders, players sometimes make steady progress only to encounter sudden setbacks that cause them to slide maddeningly away from their goal. Such is the life of women pursuing leadership roles.

While climbing the corporate ladder rung by rung is an ascent that challenges men as well, women often experience greater difficulties. Their climbs may be likened to trying to get footing on a glass slope; any number of issues may arise, sometimes causing a dismaying downslide in earnings, reputation, and networks until footing can be reestablished.

The family care chute
A few decades ago, the stories that made news were of women delaying motherhood until they could no longer ignore the insistent ticking, buzzing, and chiming of their biological clocks. Now, the anecdotes are more extreme. India and Singapore have noted an increasing demand for surrogate mothers, a choice made by some women simply so they won't have to get off the leadership fast track to start a family ("Outsourcing," 2007). Through these headlines, however, there was nary a word about some new trend that cited men anguishing over the dilemma of pursuing career advancement versus becoming a parent.

The impact of interrupting a career to bear and rear children or to care for elderly parents is very real for women. In addition to halting any salary momentum during a leave, the ongoing demand for family care may have a not-so-subtle influence on employees' opinions of working women. In a U.S. survey by and Elle magazine, 15% of the 60,000 people surveyed said that female bosses' work suffered because of their family responsibilities, while only 7% said the same of their male bosses (Linn, 2007).

The weak network chute
Women are also at a disadvantage when it comes to networking opportunities. Balancing family obligations with work leaves little time to invest in the business and social interactions that help to build networks, according to Alice H. Eagly of Northwestern University and Linda L. Carli of Wellesley College (2007). The coauthors of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders point out in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review that "underinvestment in social capital" is a common obstacle for women. Even when networking occurs, women find that "influential networks are composed entirely or almost entirely of men" (p. 69).

The work assignment chute
Another common career derailer for women is that they are noticeably less likely to have traveled abroad to gain global work experience, an oft-cited boost for those with executive ambitions. Such home-based rooting could be affiliated with a reluctance to travel due to family commitments or may be connected with an assumption of that stance by corporate leaders. In either case, the proportion of expatriates who are women was just 20% in 2006 for multinational firms, although that does represent an increase from the historical average of 15%, according to the 2006 GMAC Global Relocation Trends survey (GMAC Global Relocation Services 2007).

And in a 2007 study by Michelle K. Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam of the UK's University of Exeter, researchers found a tendency to elevate women to leadership when organizations are facing some type of crisis, a practice they refer to as the "glass cliff." Such moves, they claim, put women in a position where they "are more likely to be seen as poor leaders and to be blamed" for contributing to the situation versus remedying it.

The feminine traits chute
Differences in leadership styles between men and women present some irony for women. Men's leadership styles are typically associated with assertiveness, ambition, control, dominance, and similar characteristics. Yet people are often resistant to women who demonstrate such traits, say Eagly and Carli. Earlier work by leadership expert James MacGregor Burns categorizes leadership as either transformational (behaviors that build on trust, confidence, goal-setting, mentoring, and empowerment) or transactional (behaviors that build on give-and-take, responsibility-setting, rewards, and corrections). A compilation of studies shows that female leaders often demonstrate the transformational behaviors (along with the rewards behavior of the transactional style) that Eagly and Carli say "most leadership research has found … to be more suited to leading the modern organization" (pp. 67–68).

Steadying the ladder
Since effective leadership characteristics increasingly reflect what could be described as the more "feminine" side of the equation, facilitating the journey of women toward leadership roles can help create a legion of leaders who possess such valued traits as compassion, encouragement, and collaboration.

Katherine Merrow, executive director of the New Hampshire Women's Policy Institute, recommends that companies evaluate policies that support (or impede) women's exit and reentry to the workplace, implement flexible work programs, audit pay practices to discover any male/female earnings gaps, and establish mentoring programs to help women with career development (Mowry, 2007).

Governments can help, too. In Japan, for example, proposed budget items will provide nearly $14 billion (U.S.) to encourage women to return to work after starting families ("Japan," 2007). Features include increased pay for women on maternity leave and assistance with child care.

Eagly and Carli (2007) also have advice for facilitating women's rise to leadership. Since women shoulder the brunt of family responsibilities, firms should ensure that men are also encouraged to take advantage of pro-family practices and that the emphasis on long work hours gives way to better measures of productivity. Companies should assign challenging projects to women so they can build their portfolio of experiences. In addition, firms can help women build their "social capital" networks through mentoring and should educate the workforce on signs of bias and negative perceptions toward women in leadership roles.

If, indeed, a woman's natural leadership style best suits the challenges of today's companies, organizations need to take steps to ensure that women can find firm footing on the corporate ladder.

For much more information, visit i4cp’s Leadership Knowledge Center and its Women in the Workforce Knowedge Center.

Are you trying to climb the corporate ladder, but keep slipping down chutes instead? Check out AMA's free webcast with insights from women executives.


Eagly, Alice H., and Linda L. Carli. "Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership." Harvard Business Review, September 2007,  pp. 63–71.

GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council, Inc., and SHRM Global Forum. Global Relocation Trends 2006 Survey Report,  2007.

"Japan to Encourage Working Mothers to Return to the Labor Force." Asian HR News [www.]. July 2007.

Linn, Allison. "Women More Likely to Miss Work for Kids." []. March 7, 2007.

Mowry, Matthew J. "Bridging the Pay Gap." Business NH Magazine. ProQuest. August 2007, p. 18.

"Outsourcing a Womb." []. April 6, 2007.

Ryan, Michelle K., and S. Alexander Haslam. "The Glass Cliff: Exploring the Dynamics Surrounding the Appointment of Women to Precarious Leadership Positions." Academy of Management Review, Vol. 32, no. 2,
2007, pp. 549–572.

About the Author(s)

Donna J. Bear is the Leadership Knowledge Center Manager for the Institute for Corporate Productivity. She has a B.S. degree in business administration and an M.S. degree in management and is certified as a senior professional in human resources. Her previous experience as an HR generalist/consultant spans the PEO, corporate, and not-for-profit sectors.