In progressive discussions of the gender gap in business leadership, there’s something of a third rail: the idea that maybe, just maybe, women don’t want the jobs at the top. The numbers are so dire—less than 5 percent of CEOs and less than 15 percent of executive officers at Fortune 500 companies are women—that suggesting that women prefer it that way feels like a cop-out.
But a new set of reports from Harvard Business School offers data that won’t be put in a corner. In Harvard Business Review, two of the researchers write that they found that “men and women have different preferences when it comes to achieving high-level positions in the workplace. More specifically, the life goals and outcomes that men and women associate with professional advancement are different.”
In one study that asked 800 working people to list up to 25 “core life goals” (for example: “being in a committed relationship, keeping up with sports, being organized, or attaining power or status”), women named more goals than men, and a smaller proportion of them had to do with power. In another study, when asked to imagine a promotion in their current organization, women anticipated more negative outcomes (stress, burden of responsibility, time sacrifice) than men. A third study showed that while there is no significant difference between the career heights women and men think they can attain—a heartening discovery—men rank their ideal position as slightly higher on the ladder than women.
These findings add another nuance to the already complex set of circumstances thought to bring about gender inequity in business. From Harvard Business Review:
The previous explanations for gender imbalance in high places have been twofold. Some scholars argue that institutional barriers are the key culprit. For example, research has found that people view women as less competent than men and lacking in leadership potential, and partly because of these perceptions, women encounter greater challenges to or skepticism of their ideas and abilities at work.
Other scholars believe the gender imbalance exists primarily due to innate differences in men’s and women’s perceptions, decisions, and behaviors. For example, research has found that men are more likely than women to engage in dominant or aggressive behaviors, to initiate negotiations, and to self-select into competitive environments — behaviors likely to facilitate professional advancement.
Indeed, it seems like every potential source of the power gap but preference has been thoroughly explored. Business Insider published six editorials on the subject in 2012: One chalked the gap up to women embracing their role as child-bearers who will always be the ones to stay home with kids. One said women didn’t want to make waves by pushing for promotions or raises. Another advised women to wait—progress takes time, and millennials don’t see gender in the same way their forebears do. Two of the authors wrote that women have more empathy or “Gaia values” than men—qualities that aren’t yet explicitly valued in the workplace, though they should be. Not one posited that women don’t always want the high-pressure, high-responsibility, high-demand seats at the top.
There’s a prevailing feeling in some feminist circles that we’ve all got to stick to the black-and-white party line because so much is at stake, especially since those who’d dismiss claims of discrimination will grasp onto anything within reach to support their flimsy case. The men’s rights movement, for instance, has championed the idea that power is a burden, not a reward, which comes into play in some of these new Harvard studies. We’ve seen a similar impulse in mainstream gay-rights rhetoric, too. The “born this way” paradigm of queerness has been levied at the expense of any other, more nuanced understanding of sexuality; queer people like Cynthia Nixon, who’s described her sexuality as something of a choice, are seen as a threat to a narrative that asks legislators to protect our rights simply because we can’t help who we are.
But oppression is complicated, and people are, too. This is a both-and situation, not an either-or; one explanation of gender inequity being true does not make the other not true. There are plenty of well-documented external barriers to women rising in the workplace—little things like getting disproportionately negative performance reviews and not being hired in the first place—but women’s preferences, which are deeply informed by things like imposter syndrome and socialization toward family care, are just as relevant. The root cause of self-fulfillment for all women is best served by a discussion of all factors of inequality, not just the most convenient ones.