The gender gap in wages, positions and even pensions for working women is well established, but research shows that a gender aspiration gap has also emerged in recent years. This is when women don’t strive to rise through the ranks in the same way that men do, and it could affect efforts to encourage more women to apply for leadership positions at work.
The global drive for greater social equality in recent years has been guided by ongoing research into how women are underrepresented in business leadership roles. For example, recent research shows that while the proportion of women in senior management positions is increasing incrementally, the “leaky pipeline effect” means fewer women reach top positions in companies.
This situation has forced policy makers and business leaders to create diversity initiatives trying to tip the balance. Research shows evidence of better financial performance in organizations with more women in senior positions, as well as in the broader economic benefits to ensure that women can realize their full economic potential.
These initiatives usually aim to eliminate prejudice and target different stages – from recruitment to promotion. Some companies also design flexible work options such as the ability to work remotely. Creating a culture of inclusion and support can also help, for example by implementing mentoring and advocacy programmes.
The goal of increasing women’s participation in leadership is undeniably well-intentioned. But when implementing these diversity initiatives, business leaders need to think about whether women want to occupy these leadership roles.
Currently, many women do not have the ambition to become leaders, according to Research I completed with Leah Sheppard from Washington State University and Tatiana Balushkina from University of Milan-Bicocca. Our meta-analysis of research comparing men’s and women’s aspirations for leadership and managerial roles shows that men are significantly more likely to pursue leadership roles than women. We looked at six decades of research with a final sample of more than 138,000 American participants. We also ran a simulation based on these results, which showed that, in a company with eight hierarchical levels, the gender difference in leadership aspirations translates to having 2.13 men for every woman at the highest organizational level.
According to our research, the difference in ambitions arises around university age. This is a time when many people are introduced to professional life for the first time, for example through an internship or a summer job. We also found that industry matters. The gender aspiration gap can certainly be seen in female-dominated areas such as nursing and education, but is much larger in more mixed and male-dominated areas, such as politics and business.
Even if the number of diversity initiatives is increased, especially in the last decade, our meta-analysis shows that the gender difference in leadership aspirations has remained the same over the past 60 years. This could indicate that either the current diversity initiatives do not address women’s concerns about these roles, or that the initiatives are too general and should be more tailored to the specific needs of women.
Making it work
Our research indicates that corporate diversity initiatives don’t work. Business leaders and managers therefore need to take better account of women’s real aspirations when developing these initiatives. A good start would be to try to understand the specific reasons behind the lower aspirations of female workers, especially in male-dominated environments.
While we have not been able to test an explanation for the aspiration gap, we believe it may be related to the process of “self-stereotyping”. This is when individuals internalize gender stereotypes and voluntarily conform to gender norms. For women, this can mean internalizing a more common stereotype, which makes them see themselves less as a leader. Unsurprisingly, such women do not tend to aspire to leadership positions. Men, on the other hand, can internalize the male ‘agent’ stereotype, which makes them think they can have more control over themselves and others – this also matches the stereotype people often have of leaders.
Of course, other explanations are possible. This could include women having more negative workplace experiences, such as bias and discrimination, which lead them to forgo aspiring to leadership roles. It is also possible that women are concerned that accepting a leadership position and the responsibility that comes with it could have a negative impact on their family life. For example, women often hold more power when it comes to decision making at home – so much so that they have less interest in gaining power in the workplace.
Any effort to empower women should start with specific and targeted interventions, such as developing mentorship schemes or highlighting role models. Organizations should also target women who have leadership potential early in their careers and provide them with useful resources and support to move up the organization. Our results suggest that interventions aimed at increasing women’s leadership aspirations should ideally occur before or during college. Women at this stage of their careers would particularly benefit from the opportunity to see and interact with women who are already in leadership positions.
It is possible to create gender diversity initiatives that will do more to increase the number of women reaching the higher echelons of business. And making room for more women to take leadership positions isn’t just fair; it can also have one positive impact on business performance.