I'm going to get out the broom here and make a sweeping generalization: Working women have more going on in their lives, generally, than working men do. So when a woman is offered a big promotion, she's a little bit more wary about accepting it then a man would be.
This, to me, seems like common sense. Even though working moms are the sole or primary or breadwinner in 40 percent of American households, they are still also overwhelmingly the ones taking care of, or arranging for the care of, children and the elderly. They're just busy, in a way many men are not.
Yet when Francesca Gino, a professor of at Harvard Business School, unveiled research that supports these generalizations, she got booed. Yes, booed. At an academic conference.
Gino, in an email exchange, told me that some in the audience interpreted her research to say that, "women are not ambitious or that women should not be offered positions of power." This, she says, "mischaracterizes" her work, which she conducted with Allison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and Caroline Ashley Wilmuth, a PhD student.
Gino also points out that if women are more wary of taking on a promotion, they may be "correctly predicting the unique experiences that they are poised to encounter upon professional advancement, and are making sound decisions accordingly." In other words, if taking that big job is going to be harder on a woman than it is on a man, a woman would be right to be more cautious.
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The research Gino presented at the conference came from a series of studies involving more than 4,000 participants. In the first study, the researchers asked 781 men and women to write down their important life goals. On average, women wrote down twice as many goals as men, and on average, a smaller proportion of their goals had to do with gaining power. So even if women and men have the same number of goals that have to do with power, for women, those goals are a smaller proportion of the total.
This is how Brooks, in an interview with Harvard's Working Knowledge newsletter, explained it.
"We wondered if women may think about things that men don't ... 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."
It's notable here that "starting my own business," as a goal, would not necessarily be categorized as a goal that's related to power. Strictly speaking, that makes sense--who becomes an entrepreneur for the joy of managing employees? No one. But it also shows how narrow a definition of ambition or success Gino and her colleagues are working with.
The researchers next asked 635 recent graduates of Harvard Business School to draw a ladder representing professional advancement in their field. They were then asked to mark the rung they thought they currently occupied, and then to mark their ideal position. The ideal position, for the men, was higher than for the women.
The interesting part came when the researchers tried to figure out why. They asked both men and women: Picture yourself being offered a promotion. What are the positive effects, and what are the negative? Both genders listed the same number of positive effects, but women listed more negative effects. This held true whether they asked recent MBA grads, people getting their executive MBA, or undergrads.
Unfortunately, this appears to be totally rational. Particularly given a 2014 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that showed that men who have the ability to hire and fire are happier than men who don't. But for women, it's completely different. Women who have this same ability--also called "job authority"--are not happier than women who don't. In fact, they're more likely to be depressed. The study showed that women leaders have levels of life satisfaction about equal to women who don't work outside the home.
The Harvard study results are also in contrast to those of a study by the Center for Talent Innovation that was released in December 2014. In the report accompanying that study, the researchers maintained that women lose their appetite for power as their careers progress because they don't understand the perks and abilities that power can provide. But in the Harvard research, the women understood perfectly well the benefits of having power, or at least understood them the same way that the men did. They just were also more aware of the downsides.
I'm hoping that at some point we'll be able to see the lists of life goals of the men and women, and of the upsides and downsides to power that both listed. I wonder to what extent entrepreneurship can solve some of these issues, and to whether entrepreneurs would have the same sorts of answers as the researchers' B-school strivers.
For their part, Gino and her colleagues say they're interested to know when women's lists of priorities start to grow so much longer than those of their male counterparts. They're thinking they may have to go "even younger" than high school. I'm thinking they'll have to go a lot younger than that--and hope their study participants are old enough to correctly read their survey forms.