Study: Women Are Ambivalent About Power

14408940363_2c187fa1f5_zIn the post-Lean In world, it feels as though you can’t spend five minutes on the internet without seeing an article about cracking the glass ceiling. Women’s professional development is all the rage right now (and we contribute to that—sorry we’re not sorry!).But as initiatives to push women to the top proliferate, a few researchers are tackling an interesting question: is getting to the top what women want?A series of studies recently summarized in Harvard Business Review have fascinating implications for how we address gender gaps in leadership moving forward. Specifically, researchers found:

  • Women think they can get to the top…but they might not want 630 MBA graduates were asked to rate both the highest professional position they felt they could attain and their ideal professional position. Men and women rated their professional potential about the same, but women indicated a preference for positions lower down on the career ladder.
  • Women want a lot out of their lives, but power isn’t a high priority. When 800 people were asked to list their “core life goals,” women listed more total goals than men, but not many of the women’s goals were power-related.
  • Women are more ambivalent about moving up. When asked to think about how they would feel if they were promoted, men thought about all of the good things the promotion would bring (more money, more influence, etc.), and women thought about those things, too—but women also thought more about the downsides to being promoted (more stress, more time in the office, more responsibility, etc.).

As the authors of the studies note, we have to resist the temptation to see this research through the narrow lens of “good news” or “bad news”:

Based on these data, we cannot make value judgments about whether men and women’s differing views of professional advancement are good or bad, or rational or irrational for individuals, organizations, or society. It is possible that men and women are correctly predicting the differential experiences that they would encounter with professional advancement and are making sound decisions. It is also possible that women are overestimating the negative consequences associated with power, that men are underestimating them, or both. We can conclude, however, that one reason women may not assume high-level positions in organizations is that they believe, unlike men, that doing so would require them to compromise other important life goals.

Another conclusion we at Take The Lead feel comfortable making: this is further evidence that changing women’s relationships with power should have an impact on gender parity at the top of organizations. Tradeoffs between professional advancement and other sources of life fulfillment will always exist, but shifting how women feel about power is one aspect of this dynamic we can address (and it’s something we know how to do).