Gender, Sense of Power, and Desire to Lead: Why Women Don’t “Lean In” to Apply to Leadership Groups That Are Majority-Male
Women's perception that they will have less power in majority-male leadership groups decreases their desire and intention to seek leadership roles.
Despite efforts to reduce gender gaps in the workplace, women are still underrepresented in leadership positions. Popular adages have encouraged women to 'lean in,' framing this discrepancy as a product of individual will instead of addressing the structural barriers preventing women from pursuing leadership positions, such as stigmas against accommodations for childcare, failure to acknowledge women's contributions, or social backlash stemming from perceptions of assertive women as cold (see Amanatullah & Morris, 2010; Okimoto & Brescoll, 2010).
Past research, however, has suggested that making leadership roles more desirable to female candidates, rather than attempting to increase their interest in the face of existing structural barriers, may be an effective method for increasing women's representation in leadership groups. Research finds that women are more likely to experience and be aware of additional workplace barriers to seeking leadership positions, especially in male-dominated contexts, and, as a result, may be less interested in working in such environments.
In this study, the authors seek to understand why women may not have as much desire or intention to join a majority-male leadership group (e.g. a committee or board) compared to their male counterparts. They posit that women anticipate having less power, defined as influence over others in the group, in majority-male leadership settings, which affects their desire and intention to join. Across four studies, the authors examine the interaction between a candidate's gender and the gender composition of a leadership group on the candidate's sense of power, desire to lead, and intentions to apply to be a member.
Women expected having less power in a majority-male leadership group than in a gender-balanced leadership group. Men did not have the same expectations of less power in majority-female leadership groups.
Women's anticipation of lower power in majority-male leadership groups affected their desire to lead and, in turn, their intentions to apply for membership. Men did not exhibit a similar significant relationship between sense of power and desire to lead.
Increasing women's sense of power in majority-male leadership groups increased their desire and intention to pursue leadership opportunities, indicating that women can be attracted to leadership roles, even in majority-male contexts, with adequate power in the position.
These results encourage efforts to increase organizational diversity by underscoring the power of the women leaders present to increase other women's desires to pursue leadership roles. Organizations seeking gender balance within leadership boards or committees can apply this research by identifying ways to increase female candidates' anticipated sense of power in a majority-male group.
In Study 1A, participants read about an online leadership committee for which they were eligible and encouraged to apply. They were then shown a summary of the characteristics of previous leaders involved in the committee, with participants randomly assigned to read about either a male-dominated leadership group or a gender-balanced leadership group. Afterwards, they were asked about the extent to which they felt they would be able to exert influence over others within the group (measuring 'sense of power'), the extent to which they desired to pursue the presented leadership opportunity (measuring 'desire to lead'), and whether they would apply for the presented leadership opportunity (measuring 'intention to apply').
Study 1B was conducted to replicate findings in Study 1A and to investigate whether sense of power was associated with leadership desires and intentions above and beyond self-efficacy, or the belief that one can succeed at a given task, including self-efficacy as a control variable. In addition to responding to the measures included in Study 1A, participants rated statements describing self-efficacy, such as "Compared to other people, I can do most tasks on most tasks on this leadership committee very well."
Study 2A further incorporated a third majority-female leadership group condition to examine whether being a minority member of the leadership group would affect male participants' desires and intentions to lead.
Study 3 manipulated participants' sense of power to test the assumption that expected sense of power mediated the relationship between gender and desire and intention to lead. All participants were, first, provided information about the leadership committee and, second, shown the majority-male leadership group summary. Then, participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions in which they read testimonials from previous group members, with one condition aimed to communicate a low sense of power and the other a high sense of power. Afterwards, participants were asked, as in previous studies, about their own sense of power, desire to lead, and intention to apply.