What’s keeping women from management roles?

A meta-analysis of six decades of studies shows that women aspire to leadership roles less often than men do

Published Sun, Sep 11, 2022 · 04:46 PM

Growing up in British Columbia in the 1990s, Ekaterina Netchaeva found it perplexing that, though her mother received glowing performance reviews as a quality control engineer for a software company, she never tried to reach the top leadership track.

“She was ambitious and doing well in her job, but she was simply not interested in going for the next promotion,” Netchaeva says. Several of her mother’s female colleagues felt the same, and when a teenage Netchaeva queried them about it, they cited family obligations, problematic gender dynamics at the office, and a lack of interest.

Years later, Netchaeva saw the same pattern among her own friends. But as an organisational behaviourist – she’s an assistant professor of management and human resources at HEC Paris – she was better placed to understand the issue. She joined forces with gender researcher Leah Sheppard, an associate professor of management at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, who’d long been puzzled by the failure of corporate diversity and inclusion efforts to close the gender leadership gap.

“The conversation around women and leadership was really dominated by bias and discrimination,” Sheppard says. “We thought that there was a place to talk about women’s agency: Are women actually intending to pursue these positions as much as men?”

Sheppard, Netchaeva, and collaborator Tatiana Balushkina recently published a meta-analysis on women’s workplace aspirations. The seven-year project traced the interests and ambitions of 138,000 men and women across 174 studies dating back to the 1960s, aggregating the data to analyse the gender gap and slicing it into categories such as age, industry, and time. They cast a wide net, tracking down published and unpublished papers, which was pivotal given that researchers tend to abandon unpopular or unsurprising data, especially around hot-button issues such as gender. (This is known in academia as the file drawer problem.)

“The results confirmed our suspicions that women are not as interested,” Netchaeva says.


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The meta-analysis concluded that among the last three generations of workers, men have consistently displayed higher aspirations for leadership than women, even more so in male-dominated industries, and that the gender gap in aspirations didn’t meaningfully shrink over time.

Again and again, high schoolers imagined themselves in leadership roles, but a shift emerged among college students, with women seeing themselves as leaders less often, a trend that continued in adulthood.

Their numbers show that on average, after the first promotion from entry level jobs, there will be 1.1 men for every 1 woman. And that seemingly small difference compounds at each level of an organisational hierarchy.

The researchers ran a statistical simulation, showing what happens when women step back from leadership at that rate at every level. The result: By the time you reach the C-suite, you’ve got 2.13 men in leadership positions for every woman – a gap caused by female disinterest alone, without accounting for real-world factors such as discrimination.

The findings suggest that setting quotas for women in leadership may be short-sighted, and that corporations’ standard approaches to promote women and remove structural barriers may never result in full parity.

Sheppard says that even though companies with gender-balanced leadership perform better across a host of metrics, pushing women into roles they don’t want is hardly the solution. The meta-analysis did not explain why women are less interested – a consequence of digging into 60 years of data but lacking access to the participants to ask the question.

Netchaeva suggests that managers seek to discover what’s unattractive to individual women about specific jobs – a task that’s best done one-on-one, as concerns may vary among women. Then managers should consider whether and how they might increase women’s interest in those positions. For example, demanding roles that take time away from family could be adjusted to narrow responsibilities and add flexibility, and companies could hire support staff. Mentors with whom a woman can feel comfortable openly discussing family issues can also be helpful, Sheppard says.

She also urges managers to identify competent future leaders early on and provide them with opportunities to take charge in informal settings, such as on team projects. This may help prevent the midcareer derailing that plagues women. “Often they haven’t been properly prepared, and they burn out,” Sheppard says. “The assumption is ‘Oh, well, this person doesn’t have the people skills or the social skills to be a leader.’”

For executives who tap Sheppard and Netchaeva for advice, there’s no easy answer. “They ask, ‘What’s the one solution that managers can do?’ They’re hoping for a magic diversity initiative that will solve everybody’s problems,” Netchaeva says.

Spoiler alert: No magic diversity initiative is forthcoming. In lieu of that, she’s gearing up to explore the reasons women eschew the leadership track. BLOOMBERG



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