Compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable

Women have a higher number of life goals than men, though a smaller proportion of these goals involves achieving power at work. Women also find high-level positions just as attainable but much less desirable than men, anticipating more negative outcomes and greater conflict with other life goals.

FindingsMethodology

Despite efforts aimed at gender equality in positions of power, women are underrepresented in most high-level positions in organizations. Recent data suggests that less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, less than 15% of executive officers, and less than 20% of full professors in the natural sciences. Both “demand-side” factors (such as gender-based backlash and discrimination in the workplace) and “supply-side” factors (such as individual differences in personality and preferences) are cited to help explain this gender gap. On the supply-side, limited research has considered how much women want positions of power (defining power as the desire for the means to influence other people). Though research has provided evidence that bias and discrimination against women contribute to this gender disparity in career advancement, the authors explore a supply-side explanation: they propose that men and women view professional advancement differently, and their views affect their decisions to climb the corporate ladder. Specifically, they hypothesize that women have more life goals than men, among which achieving power is a less dominant but equally achievable goal. This suggests that lower rates of women in leadership roles might be in part due to other priorities that women have rather than only workplace barriers to obtaining those roles. The authors conduct nine studies to examine how men and women may differ in their perceptions of high-power positions.

Findings

Though women listed a higher number of life goals than men, far fewer of these goals involved achieving power at work. Women also found high-level positions just as attainable but much less desirable than did their male counterparts, anticipating more negative outcomes and greater conflict with other life goals.

  • Women listed more life goals than men, with a smaller percent related to achieving power.
    • For example, in Study 1, women listed a statistically higher average number of life goals than men (9.46 vs. 8.41), with a statistically lower average percentage of the goals about achieving power (3% vs. 7%).
  • Women viewed high-level positions as equally attainable but less desirable than men.
    • Women and men reported no differences in current positions in their industries
    • Women viewed high-level positions and promotions as equally attainable as men
    • Women viewed high-level positions and promotions as less desirable than men
      • For example, in Study 4, women had a statistically lower rating of desirability (3.73 vs. 4.19) on a 7-point scale (0 = not at all, 7 = very much so).
  • Women anticipated similar levels of positive outcomes but more negative outcomes than men after obtaining a high-power position.
    • When imagining 1) a high-power promotion from their current employer or 2) a high-power position after graduation, women and men anticipated similar levels of positive outcomes (e.g., obtaining prestige within the company and higher income).
    • In these same scenarios, women anticipated more negative outcomes (e.g., stress or anxiety) than men.
      • For example, in Study 5, women had a statistically higher score on negative outcomes (6.73 vs. 6.23) on a 10-point scale.
  • Women said they would be less likely than men to go after high-power positions, even if it required no additional effort.
    • When imagining 1) a high-power promotion from their current employer or 2) a high-power position after graduation, women said they were less likely than men to go after it. For example, in Study 5, women had a statistically lower likelihood of going after the position (4.77 vs. 5.25) on a 7-point scale.
    • This held true regardless of whether or not obtaining the high-power promotion or position required extra effort from them.
    • If it did required extra effort, women reported a statistically lower likelihood of pursuing the position (5.07 vs. 5.41) on a 7-point scale.
    • If it did not require extra effort, women still reported a statistically lower likelihood of pursuing the position (5.54 vs. 5.97) on a 7-point scale.
  • Men and women alike rated power as one of the main consequences of professional advancement but women were less interested than men in pursuing power as a goal.
  • Women’s anticipation of more negative outcomes and greater conflict with other life goals than men helped explain why they found high-power positions less desirable and were less likely to pursue them.

In sum, these findings reveal that men and women have different perceptions of what the experience of holding a high-level position will be like, which could help explain the perpetuation of the gender disparity at the top of organizational hierarchies, unrelated to the emphasis placed on power as a corollary of professional development.

Methodology

Study 1: 781 U.S. working adults wrote a list of their core goals in life (1 to 25, in the order they came to mind). Core goals were defined as “things that occupy your thoughts on a routine basis, things that you deeply care about, or things that motivate your behavior and decisions.” Participants then chose among pre-determined goal categories with descriptions to categorize their own list goals.
Study 2: 437 adults from an online panel of employed individuals completed a short survey in which they wrote a list of up to 20 life goals then categorized them into the pre-determined goal categories with descriptions. This study aimed to address a potential confounder (pleasing the experimenter), which did not have an effect.
Study 3: 635 recent MBA graduates completed a short survey to assess the desirability and attainability of professional advancement. Using a ladder with rungs numbered from 1 to 10, participants were asked to imagine it represented the hierarchy of professional advancement in their current industry and to indicate three different positions on the ladder for their own career: 1) their current position in their industry, 2) their ideal position, and 3) the highest position they could realistically attain.
Study 4: 247 U.S. adults answered two questions on goals related to professional advancement: 1) “As one of my core goals in life, I would like to have a powerful position in an organization,” and 2) “As one of my core goals in life, I would like to have power over others.” Participants rated the desirability and attainability of these two goals.
Study 5: 465 working adults were asked about potential positive and negative outcomes of an imagined promotion. Participants then predicted the extent to which they would experience nine different positive and negative outcomes if they received the promotion (e.g., satisfaction or happiness, stress or anxiety etc), how desirable the promotion would be to them, and their likelihood of pursuing the promotion.
Study 6: 204 executives who were enrolled in executive education courses that focused on leadership, decision-making, and negotiation at a top U.S. business school complete the same questions as part of their coursework.
Study 7: Modified replication of Study 6 among undergraduates who had not yet entered the professional workforce; the scenario was modified from a high-power promotion to a high-power job opportunity after graduation. 516 undergraduates isted their own predicted outcomes then categorized them as positive, neutral or negative. They also indicated how desirable the position would be to them, and their likelihood of pursuing the position either if it did or did not require additional effort.
Study 8: 484 people were asked to imagine a promotion. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: 1) participants told, “As a result of this promotion, your level of power would increase substantially” or 2) participants additionally told a definition of power, “By power, we mean your relative ability to control other people’s outcomes, experiences, or behaviors.” Participants then indicated the extent to which they thought the promotion would conflict with their other life goals and to what extent it would require them to make tradeoffs and sacrifices.
Study 9: 265 executives who were enrolled in executive education courses were asked about potential positive and negative outcomes of an imagined promotion, their desirability of the promotion, and their likelihood of pursing it. The first two conditions were the same as Study 8. The third condition did not mention an increase of power with the promotion.