Research from Harvard: “Men want powerful jobs more than women do”   08/10/15

Francesca Gino and Alison Wood Brooks

Resumé: While women and men believe they are equally able to attain high-level leadership positions, men want that power more than women do, according to new research by Francesca Gino, Caroline Wilmuth, and Alison Wood Brooks, notes Carmen Nobel, senior editor at  HBS Working Knowledge.

Edited by Peter Horn  

New research from Harvard Business School reveals a stark gap in the professional ambitions of men and women.

Having surveyed a diverse sample of more than 4,000 men and women, a team of social scientists reports a list of potentially controversial findings:

  • Compared to men, women have more life goals, but fewer of them are focused on power.

  • Women perceive professional power as less desirable than men do.

  • Women anticipate more negative outcomes from attaining a high-power position.

  • Women are less likely than men to jump at opportunities for professional advancement.

  • While women and men believe they are equally able to attain high-level leadership positions, men want that power more than women do.      

Published recent in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their study is entitled “Compared to Men, Women View Professional Advancement as Equally Attainable, but Less Desirable “.

(…) The research was conducted by Francesca Gino, professor in the Negotiations, Organizations & Markets (NOM) unit at HBS; Caroline Wilmuth, who is pursuing a doctorate in organizational behavior at Harvard, and Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor in the NOM unit.

(…) These are the last people in the world who would try to thwart female ambition with scientific research. Still, when Gino presented the study at a conference, the audience booed her.

“People were upset because they thought the paper suggested that we shouldn’t offer women positions of power. And I want to make it clear that, no, that’s not what we’re saying at all,” Gino says.

 Points of power-view may differ
The researchers simply want to raise the idea that women and men tend to view power differently, and have different preferences about professional advancement—and to delve into why.

The research began with the hypothesis that women have more life goals than men do, based partly on previous gender research and partly on personal experience and observation.

 “We wondered if women may think about things that men don’t,” says Brooks. “You want to be an amazing employee. You want to be an excellent leader at work. But you may also want to dress well. And make sure your children are fed. And that the nanny got to the house in time for you to leave for work. And remember to check in with your close friends. And find time to jog three times a week. And so on. Even in the most progressive, gender-balanced households, on average, women seem to think about a greater diversity of pursuits.”

The researchers asked 781 working adults to fill out an online survey, listing their core goals in life. Indeed, on average, women listed nearly twice as many goals as men did. Among the goals that they listed, however, men reported a higher percentage of goals related to professional power.

Next, the team investigated whether women desired professional advancement less than men, due to having to juggle more goals. They recruited 635 men and women from the same professionally-ambitious demographic: the Harvard MBA classes of 2013 and 2014.

Climbing the career ladder
The participants considered a picture of an actual ladder, which represented the conceptual corporate ladder. Their task: to indicate their current position in their industry, their ideal position, and the highest position they could realistically attain.

In terms of their current positions, there were no significant differences between men and women among the newly-minted MBA grads. And men and women chose equally high rungs regarding how high they thought they could climb on the corporate ladder, if they ever wanted to climb that high. But when it came to the ideal position, women chose a lower rung on the ladder than men did, on average.

“It’s not a matter of thinking that high-level positions are more or less attainable for these men and women,” Gino says. “It’s just that they have different preferences.”

More might be less
The next logical step was to suss out why women (even women with Harvard MBA degrees) may desire professional advancement less than men do. So the researchers asked 465 working adults to imagine accepting a promotion at work, and to predict the extent to which they’d experience possible resultant outcomes. Some outcomes were positive (satisfaction, money, influence), while others were negative (stress, tough tradeoffs, conflict with other life goals). “The idea was to capture all the possible things that might happen to people in high power,” Gino explains.

Overall, both men and women predicted the same level of positive outcomes. Yet, women predicted a higher level of negative outcomes than men did.
Download the research:

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