Not Even “Wonder Woman” Can Break the Glass Ceiling

Not Even “Wonder Woman” Can Break the Glass Ceiling

In Smithsonian Magazine, Foreman (2014) discussed “Wonder Woman” as a proto-feminist ideal.  Wonder Woman’s creator William Moulton Marston was both a comic book writer and a psychologist.  Back in 1943, he wanted Wonder Woman to be new model for young women and girls.  He said, “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power.”  Marston would be incensed at how Marvel Comics has watered down his prototype for feminine strength.  I enjoyed the television show, but I recognized that Linda Carter’s role was more about feminine attraction and less about feminine power.  Despite many women who have paved the way for female leadership, our culture still has a problem with strong, powerful women.


Hofstede (cited in Taras, Kirkman, & Steel, 2010) defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one human group from another” (p. 406).  When I was one of a handful of first-ever female executives in a male-dominated industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a raging debate going on about gender role expectations.  Particularly, the debate was about how women could best adapt feminine gender roles into the dominant male culture in the corporate office.  My male bosses wanted me to be “assertive, but not aggressive” and “sensitive and collaborative, but not emotional.”  My female colleagues and I were required to attend weeklong training with an organizational psychologist to learn how to adapt to the male environment. These not-so-subtle tactics clearly communicated that the male culture was superior.


Last week I mentioned Meyerson’s and Fletcher’s 2000 manifesto for shattering the glass ceiling published in Harvard Business Review.  Meyerson and Fletcher (2000) suggested that corporations speak of valuing differences, but women experience only marginal acceptance for using “feminine” skills.  Research cited by Rosette and Tost (2010) showed that women leaders are at a disadvantage because they are too closely aligned with feminine cultural traits (e.g., communal leadership style versus agentic).  Western stereotypical expected gender behaviors are used in studies evaluating perceptions of women’s leadership performance and role incongruity.  When women are too assertive in expressing agentic behaviors, they are seen as violating their gender role (Rosette & Tost, 2010).  Perceived inconsistency in gender role expression can be difficult for women to overcome in leadership roles.  In a commentary on women breaking through glass ceilings in the New York Times, Howley (2008) wrote: “Social psychologists have found that women in leadership roles are typically seen as either warm, likable and incompetent, or cold, distant and competent.  To be a strong, competent woman is to be something culturally unattractive” (para. 9).


Women seem to be “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” exhibit feminine traits.  Rosette’s and Tost’s (2010) research found that top-level women possessed leadership advantages compared to their male cohorts and they are more likely to be viewed as effective leaders.  Unfortunately, the research showed that a woman must break through the glass ceiling before the gender stereotypes associated with the feminine culture (e.g., building community and strong relationships, creating a collaborative environment, helping employees build capacity) are valued.  Rosette and Tost posited, “women [in lower and middle levels of the organization] may face the biases [of role incongruity] and the backlash effect” (p. 232).  Their research results suggested that women who reach higher levels in an organization were perceived as facing a higher standard than their male cohorts and engaged in “increasingly valued feminized management tactics.”  Nevertheless, a woman has to be strong to get to the top.


Inbal is a rare woman leader in the technology sector and she serves on a corporate board.  She wrote, “I often sit in the boardroom, a single woman with 15 other guys.  When one looks at the top of the pyramid in the companies I've worked for and similar ones, women are even more scarce.  I still believe anything is possible for women, but as I climb through the ranks of the corporate world, or at least aspire to, I'm encountering more and more challenges, questions, and situations at the office that I would not be encountering if I were a man.”

There continues to be a problem with women who exhibit strength and power.  Covert (2015) wrote, “[the United States] has a complicated relationship with powerful women: They have to keep proving themselves over and over again, being twice as good” (para. 15).  Covert further observed, “…the reality is that the country hasn’t gotten used to women in charge.  A crack in the glass ceiling in one place could very well just reinforce it for everyone else.”  I picture Wonder Woman pinned under a huge, magical glass dome.  She hurls her magic rope and succeeds in shattering a section, but the opening isn’t big enough.  As she tries again and again, she finds she can’t get through because the glass can magically repair and reinforce itself.


Wonder Woman must muster considerable strength and resilience to make it through the glass ceiling in the corporate boardroom.



Kelley Conrad's picture Kelley Conrad | June 7, 2015 8:59 am MST

Dear I-O Bloggers,

This week we have a challenging piece from Sherry Jennings about the continuing influence ot the glass ceiling as a limitation for women who aspire to corporate leadership.  Even though this has been a "topic" for a number of years, we have made little progress.  In what ways do you see that an I-O psychologist could work to effect change in this important area? Kelley

About the Author

Sherry Jennings



Journal of Leadership Studies-Symposium Piece-Relational Leadership: Perspectives of Key Constructs on Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity in Higher Education

Psychology Today
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American Psychological Association Conference-Utilizing Clinical Hypnotherapeutic Intervention with CBT to Treat Pandemic-Aug. 13-2021 Symptomology

ILA Conference Geneva Switzerland 2021
Presenter -Topic-"The Stress Arc in Leadership and 3 Powerful Disciplines for Mitigating Major Stress Impacts in a New Era"-Upcoming
Presenter -Topic-“Improving Higher Education’s Role in Diversity and Social Equity through Relational Leadership in the New Era”-Upcoming
Presenter-Topic-"Healthcare Leadership-Using Virtuous Leadership in Chaos to Reimagine Beneficial Practices of Employee Cognitive Psychology"-Upcoming
2021-Knowledge Without Boundaries National Summit-College of Doctoral Studies Research Conference-University of Phoenix-Panel Discussion-"Exploring Emergent Trends in Leadership and Education"-Based on published symposia article from the Journal of Leadership Studies-


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