Do Women Aspire LESS To Leadership Roles? Our Research Says So

Do Women Aspire LESS To Leadership Roles? Our Research Says So

By Ekaterina Netchaeva & Daniel Brown

For more than half a century, hundreds of research papers have been published on the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the United States. Most conclude that discrimination and bias are the core reasons behind this imbalance and high-profile policies have been implemented in attempts to rectify it. To little avail. The gender gap between men and women leaders in political, business and cultural circles continues to be obstinately stuck at roughly the same level.

Indeed, research indicates that while women’s representation in the workforce has greatly increased in the past 60 years (rising from 37% to 57%), they remain stubbornly underrepresented in the top echelons of the labor force. Only 28% of American CEOs are women and a mere 6.2% of S&P 500 CEOs are female. In the top 50 North American universities, gender imbalance widens significantly towards the top leadership pyramid, reaching 61.5% at the dean level. Meanwhile, in the cultural field, only 13.7% of Hollywood movie directors are female.

Gender imbalance amongst leaders thus resists loudly trumpeted attempts at positive discrimination policies over this period. This longstanding situation goes against moral and economic sense. In terms of the former, gender inequality is considered by the United Nations and scholars as “the greatest human rights challenge of our time”. As for the latter, a growing body of evidence underlines better financial performances in companies with more women occupying senior roles, such as in private equity.

What About The Gender Gaps In Aspiration?

So, if rectifying bias and discrimination these past six decades hasn’t resolved this issue, could there be another, more subtle, part to this story? After six years of research – conducted by myself, Leah Sheppard (Washington State University) and Tatiana Balushkina (Franklin University Switzerland) and published by The Journal of Vocational Behavior in September – we find that, on top of the well-documented impact of bias and discrimination, it could be differences in male/female aspiration which perpetuates this gender gap in leadership.

We meta-analyzed 174 studies – representing almost 140,000 US participants over the last 60 years – that compare male and female aspirations to leadership positions. Our results show significant gender differences favoring men that have not changed significantly over time. We also discover that the industrial sector matters: while the gender aspiration gap in female-dominated fields such as education and health exists, it is much wider in male-dominated and mixed fields such as business and politics. Finally, we show that the aspirations gender gap widens at post-secondary age.

Using these results, we created a simulation with eight hierarchical levels predicting leadership emergence based on aspirations. Our results show the highest Level 8 to have 2.13 men to every one woman. We also note that gender gaps are almost nil at secondary student age but they leap up in the post-secondary period from 1.11 at Level 1 to 2.26 at Level 8.

Internalizing Gender Differences

In our study – encompassing research from the fields of sociology, economics, psychology, law and management – we suggest that differences may emerge because of the process called self-stereotyping, where individuals internalize their respective gender stereotypes and voluntarily conform to gender norms.

For women, this means internalizing a more communal stereotype, which leads them to view themselves as different to the prototypical leader. As a consequence, they aspire to leadership positions to a lesser extent than their male counterparts. Men on the other hand, may see themselves consistent with the masculine agentic stereotype, meaning they have greater control over themselves and others, which also aligns with the stereotype many people have of leaders.

Differential Treatment For Women

Of course, we also do not exclude the possibility that other reasons for gender differences in aspirations may be at play here. For example past research indicated that when women enter the workforce, they experience differential treatment in which they are given fewer challenging tasks and training opportunities, whilst managers appear to devote more time and effort to encouraging potential male leaders, which might result in differential ambitions between men and women.

It is also possible that women feel that the stress associated with leadership positions would overextend them as they are simultaneously focusing on family responsibilities.

Ways To Combat Aspiration Imbalance

We suggest that organizations would be wise to bolster women’s leadership aspirations from the outset of their careers. This can be achieved at two levels: education establishments could accelerate policies to have women occupy authority and expert roles. They could increase the number of professors in classrooms and spotlight outstanding women leaders in case studies and reading lists. While industries could play a pivotal role through early programs that pair women with female role models, heightening female leaders’ workplace visibility, developing family-friendly policies and encouraging them to take on less formal leadership roles, for example in the context of team projects.

Many current programs to increase women participation in leadership are well-intentioned, with initiatives aiming for improved conditions from recruitment to promotion. But business leaders need to consider whether women actually want to be in these leadership roles. And researchers need to lay bare the reasons behind their reticence.

A Call For More Academic Research On Aspiration

Indeed, our meta-analysis reveals the relative dearth of research papers examining differences in aspirations as at least a partial explanation for the leadership gender gap. This could be because revealing women’s relatively lower aspirations to leadership roles could be identified as politically incorrect. A 2020 article co-signed by Bedoor AlShebli was retracted, for example, because it suggested that impact of female academics benefits more from male relative to female mentorship.

As a result, insufficient academic attention has been paid to the role of aspiration in gender balance. Yet, this is oft-neglected field deserves more attention to encourage integrative approaches aiming at reducing the gender gap in leadership attainment – for the benefit of all parties.

Ekaterina Netchaeva is Assistant Professor in the Department of Management & Human Resources at HEC Paris.

Daniel Brown is Chief Editor in the HEC Communications Department.

*This article first appeared on the Forbes website

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