Gender inequality in top leadership positions persists across a range of fields. At a high level, research projects in economics, psychology, and management that have tried to explain persistent gender inequality have fallen into two buckets. The first emphasizes “demand-side factors,” such as how gender stereotypes about men and women comport or conflict with our perceptions of leaders. The second emphasizes “supply-side factors,” examining differences in men and women’s behavior when it comes to reaching high-power positions. According to this line of research, men may demonstrate more behaviors associated with professional advancement, including dominance, confidence, and competitiveness, than women. This week’s WAPPP seminar features Francesca Gino, Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Professor Gino and her colleagues study an additional strand of explanation closer to supply-side factors, namely gender differences in preferences. It may be that men and women have different preferences when it comes to achieving high-level positions.
The types of goals that we set out for ourselves have a big impact on our lives and our work. Professor Gino and her colleagues hypothesize that there may be a difference in the way men and women think about life goals more generally. While it’s very likely that our environment and sociocultural factors influence the types of goals that men and women have, these studies bracket those considerations and engage only with life goals as expressed by men and women. Professor Gino hypothesizes that women will have a larger number of life goals than men, likely across a wider range of roles in their lives. The second hypothesis is that in examining these goals, a smaller percentage of women’s goals will be associated with power as compared to men. These hypotheses are built on and consistent with literature that indicates that women are more motivated by relationships and men are more oriented toward achievement and power. Professor Gino noted at the outset that other audiences have responded angrily to portions of this talk, but urged us to look at the data and to remember that these findings are descriptive rather than normative.
If these hypotheses are correct, what are the implications for women and men’s desire to reach high-level positions? If women do have more life goals, and a smaller percentage are related to power, this may have implications for how women view professional advancement. Professor Gino and her colleagues expected that both men and women would be able to see the positive aspects associated with high-power positions, but that women would be more aware of and focused on the negative aspects associated with high-power positions than men. If women have more life goals that they care about, the logic goes, they will be more likely to see conflicts between their various goals and roles, and will likely see the need to make tradeoffs. Men and women, therefore, would see high-power positions as equally attainable, but women would see them as less desirable.
The first study of these hypotheses sampled 781 working adults and asked them to list their core life goals, up to 25 goals, within two minutes. Once each participant had listed their goals, they were asked to sort them into different categories based on existing research, such as power, affiliation, and personal growth. Research assistants looked over these categorizations to ensure that each goal was coded accurately. While the difference is not major, there is a gender difference in terms of listing goals, with men listing fewer compared to women. Similarly, this study produced the expected difference in terms of goals related to power, with a greater percentage of men’s goals related to power than women’s.
To control for concerns that women may have an advantage in thinking of and articulating their life goals under time pressure, the researchers conducted a second study that capped the number of life goals at 20 and asked participants to write down all of their favorite foods, up to 20, as a comparison task. The second study replicated the results of the first, with women listing a greater number of goals than men, but a smaller percentage of those goals were associated with power. These results obtain whether respondents list their own goals, pick their goals from a pre-written list, or are given a list and asked to reject goals that aren’t important to them. These findings therefore appear to be pretty robust.
Professor Gino then turned to the second question, whether men and women have different views of the positive and negative consequences of career advancement. In particular, this research asks whether women focus on conflict with other life goals in a way that makes them less interested in achieving high-level positions. Professor Gino and her colleagues sampled 635 Harvard Business School graduates and showed them a picture of a ladder representing professional advancement in their industry. Respondents were asked to indicate their current position on the ladder, what their ideal position would be, and their highest attainable position using the rungs on the ladder. The researchers found no difference in current position between men and women, but found the expected difference in ideal position. For men, their ideal position was higher on the ladder than women’s ideal position. However, when it comes to the highest attainable position, again there is no gender difference. Professor Gino describes this result as women saying “we can get there, it’s just not ideal for us.”
Why might we see this difference? Professor Gino and her colleagues anticipate that women see more negative aspects of professional advancement compared to men, despite seeing all the same positive aspects. In a companion study, respondents were asked to imagine that they had the opportunity for a promotion at work and to indicate on a scale from 1-7 their expectations of experiencing certain negative consequences, such as anxiety, stress, time pressure, and conflict, as well as certain positive consequences, such as happiness, job satisfaction, opportunity, money, and influence. The results tend in the expected direction – there is no statistically significant difference between men and women in terms of expected positive outcomes, but women report a greater likelihood of experiencing negative outcomes, especially conflict with other life goals. In this study, the researchers also asked whether respondents thought position was attainable and to what extent it was desirable. Again, women saw promotion to a higher-level position as attainable, but not necessarily desirable, and reported that they were less likely to accept the promotion.
These same results replicated across HBS alumni, executive education participants, undergraduate students, and working adults. While the data is descriptive and not prescriptive, there are all sorts of additional aspects to study. In terms of positive and negative expectations, women may be correct about the potential conflict and tradeoffs while men underestimate potential downsides of advancement. Alternatively, women may overestimate these costs. (It may also be that women accurately estimate the downsides of career advancement, knowing that they will have to shoulder much of the burden of conflict with other life goals!) Further, the study of undergraduate students implicates societal expectations in terms of life goals and institutional timelines for career advancement that may conflict with other roles and goals. One related study notes that there are significant gender differences in thinking about the future and that women have a much longer time horizon—whereas “long-term” is a period of years, for men “long-term” is measured in months. We look forward to more research to explore these complications further.