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.
While you let that provocative title sink in, it’s worth noting that the research was conducted by three professionally ambitious women: Francesca Gino, a recently tenured 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. On the life side of the work/life balance, Gino is the mother of a spirited three-year-old son, and is expecting a second child; Brooks just returned to HBS from maternity leave in August.
In other words, 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 a few weeks ago, the audience booed her.
“People were upset because they thought the paper suggested that we shouldn’t offer women positions of power, ” Gino says. “And I want to make it clear that, no, that’s not what we’re saying at all.”
Rather, she says, 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.
ABILITY VS. DESIRABILITY
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.When asked to imagine receiving a promotion at work, women predicted
a higher level of negative outcomes than men did. ©iPhoto
“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.