Why Some Women Aren’t Excited About Leadership Positions

Liz Lemon, during one of the many instances in which she was frustrated by the stresses of “trying to have it all.” Photo: NBC

“There is a striking gender gap in leadership positions across our society,” writes Francesca Gino, a Harvard Business School professor, in a fascinating new article in Scientific American. “Women represent 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, only 15 percent of executive officers at those companies, less than 20 percent of full professors in the natural sciences, and only 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms.”

Why does this gap exist and persist, even as society has generally become more gender-equitable? One short and accurate answer is sexism: In many contexts, women are still not seen as “leadership material” in the way men are, and the dynamics of social networks mean that male workers in hiring positions are, in many cases, disproportionately likely to draw from a predominately male applicant pool. These and other problems definitely contribute to the gender gap.

But Gino writes that there’s other important stuff going on here, too: Overall, women seem to be significantly less enthused about the prospect of being a manager, and more likely to take a significant hit to their happiness should they be elevated to such a position, than men.

Summing up a paper by the researcher Hilke Brockmann and her colleagues, Gino writes:

[T]he paper compellingly demonstrates that for women in positions of leadership, the level of happiness and life satisfaction is lower than that of their male counterparts. To show this, the researchers used data from 1984 till 2011 from a large national household sample and annual panel survey in Germany. The data was collected from 27,000 non-managers and 3,174 managers, a third of whom were women. Survey respondents provided their answer to the same question, year after year: How happy are you at present with your life as a whole? They could choose a number on a scale from zero (“totally unhappy”) to ten (“totally happy”). What the data clearly shows is that life satisfaction does not differ between men and women who do not hold managerial positions: for both, the level of life satisfaction is around 7.1 out of 10. But it differs substantially for those in management: females are much less happy than their male counterparts. While men reported an average level of life satisfaction of about 7.3, their female, manager counterparts reported about a 7. Climbing up the organizational ladder, it seems, is a source of happiness for men but not for women.

Why the difference? Again, sexism could be part of it — it wouldn’t be shocking if female managers were treated worse than male ones, and experience more stress as a result. Plus, as a result of gender norms, they’re likely often expected to juggle way more work-life balancing than their male counterparts. But there also seems to be some more deep-seated differences in how men and women perceive the whole career-ladder-climbing thing in the first place (note that just because it’s deep-seated doesn’t mean that it, too, is socialized and influenced by societal sexism):

In research my colleagues and I conducted, we find that when men and women are presented with the possibility of a promotion to a higher level position in their organization (i.e., they are given the opportunity to professionally advance), they find the position to be as attainable as men do, but less desirable. The reason is that they see the position generating not only positive outcomes (such as money and prestige) as much as men do, but also negative ones (such as tradeoffs they’ll need to make and time constraints). That’s where men and women differ: in how much they predict these negative outcomes will affect their lives. The tradeoffs and constraints women predict they’ll experience when reaching high-level positions are related to the fact that, as we find in our work, women have a higher number of life goals as compared to men. In some of our studies, we asked different groups of men and women, from college undergraduates to executives, to list their core goals in life – which we defined for them as the things that occupy their thoughts on a routine basis, that they deeply care about, or that motivate their behavior and decisions. The goals people listed varied, from getting married, having children or working out regularly, to finding a well-respected job and becoming rich. In study after study, we found that women listed more goals than men.

Of course, the question of why women seem to have more goals than men is an interesting one in its own right. It’s easy to construct a story that once again cycles back to sexism: If you’re a young professional women in 2017, for example, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll not only be expected to do the “traditional” womanly stuff — the emotional labor and motherhood and relationship maintenance — but also to strive to climb the ladder at your organization. Sure, men are, in many circumstances, being given more child-rearing responsibilities than before, but it feels safe to say that their responsibilities and expectations have not expanded as quickly as women’s have. If that’s true, it makes sense that women have more goals than men do; they’re expected to.

There’s a lot to untangle here, of course, and these sorts of correlational studies showing differences between how men and women answer certain questions can only get us so far. But even a small but robust difference in the extent to which men and women strive for these higher positions could potentially explain a chunk of the gender leadership gap — especially given all the other roadblocks to women getting those positions.

It would also be an issue companies could address directly, notes Gino: “Organizations and leaders can influence this decision, though. As suggested by the work of Brockmann and colleagues, they can do so by structuring and compensating managerial work differently. Building in more breathing space for leadership positions, and allowing for flexible career paths, are the types of solutions that could lead both men and women to reach high level positions in organization and experience the happiness that can come with them.” It would be a start, at least.

Why Some Women Aren’t Excited About Leadership Positions