Rethinking careers

6 Mar 2023

Ingrid Hägele explores the issue of why fewer women than men work in management positions. “Women are keen to build a career, but it depends on the conditions,” the economist says.

Ingrid Hägele

is Assistant Professor at LMU’s Faculty of Economics. | © Stephan Höck/LMU

Dr. Ingrid Hägele analyzes large volumes of data from companies in order to track down the causes of differing career trajectories. In this interview, she explains what keeps women out of management positions – and why even men’s interest in such posts is dwindling.

Ms. Hägele, when asked why there are so few women in management positions, company chiefs often answer that they would welcome female bosses but can’t find any candidates. In your research, you examine what happens around an employee’s first promotion. What is the problem?

Ingrid Hägele: My research shows that women and men differ in the way decisions are made early in their career. I am talking primarily about career development in company settings. It is not true that women leave companies more than men do.

Research findings show that women in similar positions and with similar qualifications are less mobile than men. This means that they leave companies more rarely. A similar picture emerges when they start out at a company. Even in what tend to be male-dominated industrial firms, a pool of female talent often exists on the lower levels.

And what happens then?

When the first round of promotions begins, women and men often make different career decisions.

So, there is truth to employers’ claim that many women simply don’t want to build a career?

I like to compare it with my situation as a vegetarian in Munich. If you see me eating a tiny potato salad in a beer garden, that is not necessarily because I am not hungry: There are often no dishes that I find appealing. It is similar for women, who, under the prevailing circumstances, perhaps opt not to take the next step up in their career.

What exactly frightens them off?

In most companies, building a career means taking on management responsibility. When you start out, you might still be in an expert role or acting as a project manager. But if you want to move further up into the really well-paid jobs, you have to lead a team. And for many women, that is not an appealing option. In my surveys, I find, for example, that more women than men want to develop every member of the team individually in their role as boss. Many weigh up the options and come to the conclusion that a career is not worth the huge effort this would take.

So, we are not talking about a general lack of ambition …

Absolutely not. Many of the women who are not attracted by management responsibility are actually very well educated and are often actively seeking greater challenges. Women are keen to build a career, but it depends on the conditions. Many do not want to lead.

And the men do?

Surveys show that there are now also many men who have no real desire to assume management responsibility. They simply weigh things differently to women, and more of them do ultimately decide to take this step.

What can employers do to make leadership positions more desirable for women?

My research findings show that more information can be helpful. Job advertisements could contain details about how big the team is and how long it has already been together, for example. This kind of knowledge would be useful so that candidates have an idea of what awaits them. Also, women often say that mentoring would be helpful, rather than simply being thrown in at the deep end. That would help them learn from experienced managers how to delegate and/or resolve conflicts within the team, for example.

Why is it worthwhile for companies to make the effort needed to attract more women?

Regardless of how much importance you attach to diversity goals, these gender differences have important repercussions for the process of filling vacancies in companies. Right now, many firms are desperate to find good people. For lots of advertised posts, few people apply. If companies were able to appeal to more women, that would enlarge the pool of potential candidates. And it would be easier to fill vacancies.

Would that also close the gender pay gap – the differential between wages paid to men and women?

A large proportion of the gender pay gap can indeed be explained by different positions, i.e. to some extent whether or not someone takes on management responsibility. If we succeed in increasing the share of women in management positions, that would also significantly reduce the discrepancy in pay between women and men.

Many women at some point become mothers and take a break from their job. What part does this play in the gender leadership gap?

Women with children obviously have even greater challenges to overcome than women with no children. And in my research, I do indeed see that management-related gender differences are wider where children are involved. That said, the difference in the way women and men make career decisions applies equally to people who do not have children.

Careers without management aspects

We have talked a lot about the fact that both women and increasing numbers of men are unwilling to shoulder management responsibility. Shouldn’t we completely rethink careers and see them in isolation from management?

That is certainly a hot topic. Especially in the IT sector – in Silicon Valley, for instance – more and more people are refusing to accept higher positions. They say things like: I want to be a programmer. I don’t want to spend my time processing vacation requests and always being available. Additionally, more and more companies now have expert functions where a career can develop without management aspects. At most companies, though, this option is open only to a small proportion of the workforce.

Your research also explores the phenomenon of talent hoarding. What is that all about?

It is important for companies to find and develop good employees. But if good people leave the team, that may be good for the company but not necessarily for their individual manager. On the contrary: If you lose a good software engineer at a time when specialist labor is in short supply, you can end up spending a year looking for a replacement. In economics, we refer to this dilemma as moral hazard. The consequence is that managers try to persuade their best people to stay on in the team for another year, and then another. And that in turn has a very major impact on career trajectories – above all for women.


Women respond differently to the signals sent to them by management. If managers don’t actively encourage female employees to apply for higher positions, they tend not to do it. For women more so than for men, it is important not to be confrontational in dealings with their boss.

How can this dilemma be resolved?

It is in companies’ own best interests to develop the skills of good people. They should therefore create incentives for managers to let such talents move on. For example, they could promise the team leaders help with the search for a successor to the position that will now become vacant. Some firms engage their own talent brokers who keep a look out for talented individuals and mitigate the lack of incentives for managers.

You work directly with companies and have a very practical focus. Do you get the feeling that your research can initiate change in these companies?

I do, yes! I find that very exciting. I run a lot of surveys, sometimes with ten thousand respondents. It is a source of strength for me when I see that the issues that I research play such an important part in their daily working lives, too. And when I then see a number of firms stepping up their work to specifically develop women on the lower levels, I realize that things are changing.

Ingrid Hägele is Assistant Professor at LMU’s Faculty of Economics. Before coming to LMU in 2022, she earned her PhD from the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley. Ingrid Hägele studied economics in Tübingen and at LMU.

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