Stories of Women at the Top: Narratives and Counternarratives of Women's (Non-)Representation in Executive Leadership

13 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2017

Date Written: March 2017


There is ongoing debate on a global level about (the lack of) women in senior leadership. Despite years of discussion about the alleged advantages of gender diversity progress has been glacial: top management roles and senior positions of power throughout society remain largely the preserve of men. This critical review explores how women’s power is narratively constructed in two dominant European cultures, Germany and Britain, and how stories told about women’s representation in top level executive leadership may impact individual identities, possibilities and ambitions. Using thematic and discourse analysis, this article covers empirical research, academic writing, government reports, non-fiction and fictional writing, and some anecdotal evidence gathered by the author, who has executive experience spanning two decades in multinational corporations. For reasons of space, I focus on just three of the stories currently dominating the discussion about gender equality in business: first, the story that there is nothing or little left to fight for, the battle is won; second, the story that gender equality is straightforward because there is a business case for parity; and third, the story that women are not at the top because women choose not to run the world. Each of these has a counternarrative supported by empirical and anecdotal evidence, which I outline; nonetheless, I argue, they serve to maintain the status quo in leadership, reassuring those in power that they have no responsibility for (and therefore no responsibility seriously to address) the lack of women in top positions. I suggest on the basis of the evidence that the cultural narratives of Britain and Germany are remarkably similar and that the prospects of gender equality at the top occurring in our lifetime are dismal. A juxtaposition of the (contradictory) narratives paints a more holistic picture of the discursive sea we all swim in, relevant to scholars of gender equality and women’s leadership across disciplines as well as government policy departments. As qualitative methodologies, narrative and discourse analysis cannot provide definitive answers. They can, however, provide a basis for reflecting on how dominant stories impact individuals and the cultural atmosphere. This article is published as part as part of a collection on the role of women in management and business.

Suggested Citation

Baumann, Heide, Stories of Women at the Top: Narratives and Counternarratives of Women's (Non-)Representation in Executive Leadership (March 2017). Palgrave Communications, Vol. 3, 2017. Available at SSRN: or

Heide Baumann (Contact Author)

University of Cambridge ( email )

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