08/12/2013 11:15 am ET

When Leaning In Doesn't Pay Off


WHY do women not have as many leadership roles in the workplace as men do? Some have pointed to internal barriers, suggesting that the problem is partly attributable to something about women themselves — they are not “ambitious enough” at work (while pursuing meaningful family goals), or are deeply committed to work but too hesitant to climb leadership ladders in organizations. Others cite structural or institutional barriers, like bias, discrimination or inadequate work-family flexibility. Sheryl Sandberg, in her now famous phrase, would have women “lean in,” to be more assertive at work and not let biases keep them from pushing forward. By leaning in, women would obtain more authority.

But what happens when women demonstrate the will to lead — as measured by the actual level of authority they’ve achieved at work? By authority, we mean supervising others, influencing their pay and being able to hire or fire.

To understand the claims embedded in the “lean in” hypothesis, we need to know why, when or how women decide to pursue positions of authority in the workplace. But another vital question is whether the presumed perks of achieving authority enrich women’s working lives in the same ways they do for men, both objectively (monetary rewards) and subjectively (psychosocial rewards like perceived influence and autonomy). We focused on the latter issue.

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