Why women in senior positions choose to step away: An investigation into the career motivations, experiences and decision-making of senior female legal professionals in England and Wales

Student thesis: Phd


It has long been the case that women are underrepresented in senior leadership positions. The legal sector of England and Wales is no exception. Despite the fact that more women than men are admitted to the legal profession each year, by the time this same cohort of women is in a position to step into a senior role, the talent pool has shrunk dramatically. The attrition of women from the talent pipeline for senior positions is not an entirely novel area of research. However, this thesis contributes to knowledge through a focus on understanding the reasons why women step away from a senior position in the legal profession. The thesis reveals that women who choose to step away from pursing an upward linear career trajectory do so actively, although often reluctantly, having already encountered and overcome various barriers to their career progression. Gathering narrative accounts from 30 participants using an elite interviewing technique, the research reveals that women actively step away from senior roles. The reasons for their decision to step away are complex and interlaced. Although superficially men and women have similar career trajectories, women encounter a far greater range of tacit and explicit challenges from the outset of their careers that build to a cumulative impact. These challenges range from literal calculations regarding the possible adverse impact of starting families, through to lost opportunities to generate social capital through in-person networking – extensive social capital being necessary for client acquisition and fee-earning. The accumulation of these challenges culminates in what is termed in this thesis as a ‘critical incident’ that ultimately triggers the decision to step away from an established career trajectory. Based on this analysis, the thesis proposes to extend kaleidoscope career theory. Kaleidoscope theory argues for a phasic approach to evaluating careers but follows a stereotypically gendered pattern. This thesis supports the concept of phasic careers, but evidences that the stereotypical gendered application does not necessarily hold constant for women in the legal sector. Women in high-tempo professional careers are able to use their technical skills and social capital in order to balance their professional and personal lives throughout their career. However, a perfect storm of personal and professional challenges, which can be exacerbated by benign neglect on the part of employers, ultimately triggers the decision to leave. These findings enhance the extant knowledge about gendered professional career experiences. Through a focus on the cumulative impact of prior experiences on the decisions women make at senior leadership career stages, the thesis demonstrates the importance of recognising the different experiences of men and women throughout the entirety of their careers, and argues that more flexible career structures are needed to stem the leakage in the female talent pipeline.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorColette Fagan (Supervisor) & Jill Rubery (Supervisor)


  • Bulling
  • Toxic Culture
  • Non-Linear Careers
  • Female leadership
  • Female Professionals

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