The image of ambitious female managers simply crashing against a glass ceiling is out of date. Rather than any male conspiracy, women face a labyrinth of obstacles, including long hours and macho cultures, that stop them even getting to a point where they can make a bid for the top.
A new book published by Harvard Business Press has concluded that the metaphor of the glass ceiling, or a single, subtle barrier blocking women from leadership positions, no longer applies to most workplaces.
In fact, for most women there is no absolute barrier stopping them from progressing to the top. What we see instead is a progressive falling away of women at all levels.
The book, Through the Labyrinth: the Truth about How Women Become Leaders by Alice Eagly, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, has suggested that a labyrinth is a much more apt metaphor for the challenges facing women.
The route to the top that women must navigate is complex and often discontinuous, gradually eroding the number of women prepared to make the sacrifices to push on higher.
"There isn't an absolute barrier stopping progress at a high level but rather a progressive falling away of women at every level, not just at the top," said Eagly.
One key barrier remains the number of higher-level professional jobs that become "extreme jobs", requiring far more than 40 hours of work per week.
"Those who put in longer hours generally rise faster, making it very difficult for people with family responsibilities, who are disproportionately women," said Eagly.
Another issue is the "double bind" that women face when it comes to leadership behaviour.
"The research shows that when a woman is assertive and takes charge, people often react negatively, but if she fulfils the prescribed stereotype of a kind and gentle woman, she may be regarded as a poor leader," Eagly added.
Among the book's suggestions, women are advised to blend culturally masculine behaviour with the positive aspects of feminine behaviour.
"In some extremely masculine organisations, feminine warmth may not be welcomed, but in general many women leaders who are successful engage this blend of behaviours," said Eagly.
To rise in an organisation women needed to do a better job at building social capital by expanding their social networks beyond the narrow confines of their jobs, she recommended.
Employees who had good relationships with colleagues both inside and outside of their own organisation tended to rise faster than those who focused more narrowly on traditional managerial tasks.
About a quarter of chief executives of all organisations as well as presidents of colleges and universities in the U.S. were now women, she pointed out.
Yet, until the 1980s few women were allowed to begin careers that would lead to top positions.
Women had gained access to most lower- and middle-level positions, now constituting a majority of managers in many areas, with the greatest concentrations in medical and health services, human resources, social and community services and education.
Yet women still did not have nearly as much power and authority as men, the research suggested.
Even when male and female managers were in comparable positions, women tended to wield less authority over others than men.
The positions women held generally conferred less power to make decisions and to determine others' wages.
The continuing media reports of "the first woman" to hold a prominent position show that, while a few women were negotiating the labyrinth to top leadership positions, equality remains a distant goal, said Eagly.
Of the most highly paid officers in Fortune 500 companies – with titles such as chairman, president, chief operating officer and chief executive officer – just six per cent were women. Most notably, only three per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women, she added.
Besides the small number of women in the corporate elite, many of their positions were peripheral to the centres of power.
For example, women were concentrated in staff management positions rather than line management positions that involved direct responsibility for corporations' bottom lines.
"As the labyrinth implies, a woman's route to a leadership role can be challenging," said Eagly.
"By employing scientific evidence to tackle the question of why it is more difficult for women to advance and offering the best answers available, we hope to inspire thoughtful strategies for both women and the organisations that employ them," she added.
And it may be that the U.S. and other Western nations could look to the developing world for guidance, separate research has argued.
Women in developing countries find it easier to break through into top-level management positions than do their colleagues in the West, the global study by PricewaterhouseCoopers has concluded.
The firm interviewed more than 100 business people across eight countries, including China, India and Germany.
It concluded: "Our discussions with interviewees suggested that in developed countries, cultural stereotypes and perceptions may represent greater barriers to full economic participation by women than in many of the developing countries."
The study also found that government policies in some countries played a positive role in increasing women's participation in business.
In China, for instance, its controversial one child policy had had a positive effect on women's participation in the workforce.