Women's Pathways to Leadership: Navigating Through Personal, Interpersonal, and Societal Barriers

Aktualisiert: 5. Juli 2019

The Leadership Labyrinth – What Hinders Women from Climbing Corporate Ladders?

Women on executive boards and in other elite leadership positions are still uncommon throughout the world (e.g. Caliper Research & Development Department, 2014). Germany is no exception: by the end of June 2017, only 47 out of 677 executive board members in the German stock-listed DAX, MDAX, SDAX, and TecDAX companies were female (Ernst & Young, 2017). This is despite the fact that many European countries such as Germany have been actively promoting women’s participation in business since ‘the Strategy for Equality between Women and Men’ was initiated by the European Commission in 2010. Germany even introduced a gender quota of 30 percent on supervisory boards, effective from 1 January 2016. As a result, the proportion of women on the supervisory boards of the largest 100 companies in Germany increased to an average of 30 percent by the end of 2017, almost three percentage points more than the previous year. There is a strong rationale for changing this status quo looking beyond moral motives to compelling bottom line benefits of having more women in leadership positions (e.g. Cook & Glass, 2011; Dawson, Kersley, & Natella, 2016; Dezsö & Ross, 2012; Hunt, Prince, Dixon-Fyle, & Yee, 2018). However, in top management teams across companies and in boards of companies where the quota does not apply, the progress is slow.

We argue that women’s underrepresentation indicates the persistent existence of the leadership labyrinth – a metaphor for the numerous challenges faced by women in their careers (Eagly & Carli, 2007). Extensive research on contextual factors currently discusses societal and organizational reasons for female leaders’ underrepresentation, above all stereotype-driven prejudices (e.g. Dennis & Kunkel, 2004; Eagly & Karau, 2002; Heilman, 2001; Schein, 2001) and the work-family conflict (e.g. Hewlett, 2002; Hoobler, Wayne, & Lemmon, 2009; Williams, Manvell, & Bornstein, 2006). In the 1980s, the metaphor of glass ceiling was introduced to describe an imaginary, invisible barrier that prevents minorities, especially women, from ascending the corporate ladder to elite executive positions (Johns, 2013). This depiction resonates by capturing the frustration of having a goal within sight but not being able to achieve it in spite of any efforts. The leadership labyrinth metaphor, however, appears to be more fitting to the present situation, as it reflects the multitude of obstacles women face in their careers. Being continually confronted with challenging twists and turns requires women to work extra hard and persist in the face of difficulties on their route to success. Hence, climbing the career ladder up to the very top is hard, but not impossible.

With our research, we provide new insights into the discussion on women and leadership and climbing up the corporate ladders in the German context. We ask – somewhat provocatively – the following questions and answer them with our qualitative and quantitative studies that we have carried out among women (and men) in German top firms:


1. How do women in leadership positions experience and address the identity conflicts relating to being a leader and being a woman?

2. Why do women build less effective networks than men do?

3. Do women support each other or are they rather queen bees?

With our insights we contribute to the discussion on how to simplify and increase transparency in the leadership labyrinth that continues to be the reality for the vast majority of women in Germany, and elsewhere.

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Related Topics

#ShapeTomorrowsWorkingWorld #GenderShift #Individualization

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