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One Reason Women Aren't Getting the Promotion: They Don't Want It

New research from Harvard finds that women associate power with stress, burden, and conflicts.

Women are underrepresented in leadership positions for plenty of reasons: They’re stereotyped as being less competent than men, they aren’t as aggressive, and there’s a perception that they can’t lead and raise a family at the same time. Now, research from Harvard Business School adds yet another reason to the list: Women aren’t in leadership positions because they just don’t want the jobs as much as men do.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), incorporates nine studies conducted on various high-achieving groups. Combined, the research indicates that women value power less than men, and the studies try to explain the phenomenon.

In one of the studies, conducted on 650 recent MBA graduates, researchers had participants rank their current position in their industry, their ideal position, and the highest position they could realistically attain. Women had no doubt they could “realistically attain” the same level of success as men, but they listed lower ideal positions.

Another one of the studies helps explain that finding, by suggesting women have more negative associations with power than men do. “Women expect more stress, burden, conflicts, and difficult trade-offs to accompany high-level positions,” said Alison Wood Brooks, a co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard.

One explanation for why power stresses women out: They have less time in which to attain a greater number of goals. In another of the nine studies, researchers asked about 800 working adults to rank their goals, defined as “things that occupy your thoughts on a routine basis, things that you deeply care about, or things that motivate your behavior and decisions.” The women surveyed not only listed more goals, but a smaller proportion of those goals were related to achieving power.

“Right now, it is likely that women have more goals in life because pursuing career and family goals simultaneously is a relatively new concept for women,” added Brooks. In other words, women feel more inclined to have it all than men, who listed fewer personal goals, and that means making compromises somewhere.

“I hope these findings will lead people and managers to ask [workers their preferences],” said Francesca Gino, another co-author of the paper. “Some women may deeply care about power, some may not. Some may see too many negatives. For the latter category, talking may lead to identifying opportunities that remove some of those negatives.”

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