Harvard study: Men want powerful jobs more than women

A new Harvard study found that women perceive professional power as less desirable than men.
A new Harvard study found that women perceive professional power as less desirable than men. –Phillipe Brysse/Getty

Let’s get one thing straight: Women believe they are as capable as men to attain and perform high-level leadership positions at work. Many just don’t want them as much, according to new research from Harvard Business School.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), includes nine studies conducted on high-achieving groups. Professor Francesca Gino, doctoral student Caroline Wilmuth, and associate professor Alison Wood Brooks (all of HBS) surveyed over 4,000 male and female employees from different industries, and found a big gap between the professional objectives of men and women.

While women reported having twice as many “life goals’’ as men – desired achievements that ranged from having strong relationships, marriage, a meaningful career, and family – fewer were focused on professional power, which women were more likely to associate with negative outcomes like stress and conflict.

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“This is a snapshot of where our culture is right now,’’ Brooks told Boston.com. “If we asked these questions 50 years ago, or in another 50 years, we might see dramatically different results. Women are pursuing careers on par with men, yet women are still a little more responsible for things at home.’’

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Why would power stress women out more than men? Brooks surmised that a high-powered career could take time away from women’s ability to attain so many other goals.

“My list of goals might be, ‘I want to be a supportive wife,’’’ Brooks said. “‘I want healthy children. I want to keep them fed every day. I want to call my mom and make sure she’s happy. I want to get to work on time. I want to publish lots of papers.’’’ Brooks pointed out many of her own goals are related to categories like health, fitness, and family, with a few related to power and status.

“Though young people today are very progressive and want gender equality in their homes, in our culture, women are still doing more at home while pursuing careers, so it turns out they have more on their plate,’’ Brooks explained.

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This doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be offered positions of power, Brooks said, but could help explain why fewer women take opportunities to advance their career to leadership positions.

But just because women might not want power, doesn’t mean they doubt their capabilities as leaders.

In another one of the nine studies, 635 recent Harvard MBA graduates were asked to rank their current position in their industry, their ideal position, and the highest position they could realistically attain. Women said they had no doubt they could attain the same position on the corporate ladder as men, but typically chose lower “ideal’’ positions.

Brooks anticipates that in the future, men and women might respond differently, maybe due to more fathers helping out at home, and more women represented on companies’ executive boards.

In the meantime, Brooks hopes the study will help women feel more comfortable about their various choices.

“I hope workers take comfort in these findings,’’ she said, Women who are unable to ‘lean in’ (meaning, devote themselves to workplace ambitions), or who don’t want to lean in, may be feeling guilty. Right now, leaning in is hard for a lot of people and that’s okay. It’s okay to have your own preferences.’’

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