For all who have access to PNAS, this is a fascinating study on why women are not found in higher-level positions in the workplace. This “leaky pipeline” phenomenon has been investigated for years. Women now represent a majority in college and graduate schools, however, moving up the career ladder, they are less and less represented. While in the past, a lot of this has been attributed to gender inequality, this study shows that while women believe higher-level positions are obtainable, they find them less desirable and opt away from taking them. A summary of this research can be found in the abstract:
Women are underrepresented in most high-level positions in organizations. Though a great deal of research has provided evidence that bias and discrimination give rise to and perpetuate this gender disparity, in the current research we explore another explanation: men and women view professional advancement differently, and their views affect their decisions to climb the corporate ladder (or not). In studies 1 and 2, when asked to list their core goals in life, women listed more life goals overall than men, and a smaller proportion of their goals related to achieving power at work. In studies 3 and 4, compared to men, women viewed high-level positions as less desirable yet equally attainable. In studies 5-7, when faced with the possibility of receiving a promotion at their current place of employment or obtaining a high-power position after graduating from college, women and men anticipated similar levels of positive outcomes (e.g., prestige and money), but women anticipated more negative outcomes (e.g., conflict and tradeoffs). In these studies, women associated high-level positions with conflict, which explained the relationship between gender and the desirability of professional advancement. Finally, in studies 8 and 9, men and women alike rated power as one of the main consequences of professional advancement. Our findings reveal that men and women have different perceptions of what the experience of holding a high-level position will be like, with meaningful implications for the perpetuation of the gender disparity that exists at the top of organizational hierarchies.
As a woman in science, I am thrilled to see this study as it completely echos my own personal sentiments. I am fortunate enough to say I have not personally experienced any discrimination based on gender thus-far in my career (that I know of), yet, attaining a high-power career position still doesn’t seem all that desirable. Not because I don’t think it’s possible, but mainly because I just can’t decide if it’s worth it. In science, for example, becoming a principal investigator at a research institution requires an incredibly demanding workload: long hours in the lab, working on weekends, etc. There are some flexibilities in your schedule, but from my observations, most mothers are back in the lab (or at least very present through email) as little as one week after delivering their child. For many, the job description is just not desirable enough.
While this study certainly shows a realistic reason why women are not in these high-level positions, I think it raises another issue: WHY are women (and even some men) finding high-power positions less-desirable? I think to really close the gender gap in high-power positions, all places of work must make these positions more desirable: provide adequate maternity (and paternity) leave/care, allow for flexible work hours, create opportunities to telework, etc. Maybe then we can finally mend the “leaky pipeline.”