Say what you will about Carly Fiorina, but in at least one regard, the former CEO and current presidential candidate is exceptional: She’s one of the few women to have been chief executive of a Fortune 100 company, and now she wants an even more powerful job.
Women are less likely to desire powerful jobs, according to some provocative new research that Harvard Business School professors just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But do not be misled by these findings. This isn’t because women aren’t innately ambitious, the researchers found. The issue is primarily that women have a lot of other stuff they want or need to do.
“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,” professors Francesca Gino and Alison Wood Brooks write in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
In nine separate surveys polling a total of 4,000 executives, business school students, undergraduates and a sample of employed adults, women were more likely than men to believe that achieving career power was less desirable and that it conflicted with other life goals -- such as being in a committed relationship, being organized and keeping up with sports. When asked to list their life goals, women had more of them than men.
The findings add more context to the complicated stew of explanations for why so few women are in powerful positions. Women hold only 4 percent of CEO jobs at S&P 500 companies, and just 19 percent of board seats. Only 6 percent of venture capital partners are women. And, obviously, there's never been a female president or vice president.
The quick reason for this is old-timey sexism: Until very recently, women weren't allowed up the ladder, so it's taking a while for them to make it up to the top. Still, progress has clearly been too slow -- and for that, we can thank unconscious bias: Women are often viewed as less competent by both sexes, or are punished for acting aggressively or ambitiously, research has shown. Then there’s also the tendency for the men already in power to promote and support other men.
A separate body of research tries to pin the problem on women themselves, trying to show that they’re inherently less ambitious or competitive. And at first glance, this new research seems to fit in that category.
Not so fast. First, it's tough to tease apart nature and nurture. Women, from a very young age, are socialized to have different life goals than men. Brooks referred The Huffington Post to research from 2013 that showed girls in patriarchal societies become less competitive after puberty, while girls in matrilineal societies don’t.
It’s fairly reasonable to conclude that women are trained not to want power. After all -- and of course, I’m generalizing a little -- girls get dolls in wedding dresses and little mini baby strollers; boys get fire trucks and toy dump trucks.
All we know from these findings is that women are pulled in more directions than men, and therefore see more negative consequences in taking on a role that comes with more responsibilities. The researchers also found that women didn't feel like they couldn't get high-powered positions, they just saw more downsides to achieving them.
And that is perhaps the bigger issue: Even though men are doing more, women are still mainly responsible for taking on housework, child care and, increasingly, elder care. And there's little social support to help them -- no public daycare options, for starters.
I know more than a few women who have quit their jobs or scaled down their ambitions because they had children. I know a couple men who’ve sacrificed work for family, too, but they’re not the norm.
While women are raised to become caretakers, men are raised to become breadwinners -- so yeah, they want more of the professional power because it leads to all the monies.
Also, it's important to remember that there's more to power beyond just getting a fancy job. As the authors write: "To some, professional success means achieving power over others and making a lot of money. To others, it means being happy at work, making other people happy, or helping others."
Maybe, instead of women wanting more power, men should recalibrate and want a little less.
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