The picture many people have when they think about career advancement is that of a pipeline, and it seems to be particularly prevalent in discussions related to women’s advancement. For example, we have probably all heard about this phenomenon, wherein more women exist at junior levels of an organization with fewer and fewer women in senior positions; e.g. fewer than 5% of S&P 500 CEOs identify as a woman. But, is a pipeline really the right analogy?

Here are a few reasons that thinking about advancement as a pipeline can be dangerous:

  • It implies that career paths are linear when, in fact, people don’t go straight to the top level-by-level; in fact, they sometimes go backward in order to move ahead

  • It focuses attention on the inputs and outputs, when all of the “juicy” stuff is happening in the pipes, which nobody can see (ironic, isn’t it?); we don’t see the rate of advancement or people stalling out, i.e. we don’t know how the outputs become the outputs

  • It generally makes advancement seem so easy: “simply follow the path, and you too will be at the top!”

So, what SHOULD it look like? Funny enough, this is a question I received during my dissertation defense. While I don’t have all the answers, the visual in my mind is something more like this:

Image by JuraHeep from Pixabay

Image by JuraHeep from Pixabay

This picture instantly makes me feel a little uneasy. It’s chaotic. It’s messy. It’s complex. That sounds a lot more like the advancement stories I’ve seen and heard.

To put a more positive spin on it, there are multiple paths (not just one “right” one). Paths intersect, implying that one can jump from one path to the other. There are turns for folks who change their minds, allowing for pivots in one’s career.

Why write about this? Words are powerful. Visuals, perhaps even more so. That’s why this pipeline analogy can be dangerous, because it creates an unrealistic expectation for what a career path should be. This can be especially harmful to women, 80% of whom (according to a 2001 study) become mothers, leading to gaps in their careers. If 80% of women are experiencing something (albeit, not the only thing) that shatters the image of a perfectly linear pipeline, it may be time to visualize something new.

To read more about this phenomenon, click here: Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership

Additional resources:
LeanIn, & McKinsey & Company. (2017). Women in the workplace 2017. Retrieved January 6, 2018, from

McCarty Kilian, C., Hukai, D., & McCarty, C. Elizabeth. (2005). Building diversity in the pipeline to corporate leadership. Journal of Management Development, 24(2), 155—168.