What to Say When You Hear, “Women Aren’t In Leadership Roles Because They Opt Out”

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What to Say When You Hear, “Women Aren’t In Leadership Roles Because They Opt Out”

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Talking points for exhausting conversations.

“Women aren’t as ambitious as men.”

“Women become less committed to their careers when they become mothers.”

“Women don’t ask for leadership opportunities.”

If there was ever such a thing as corporate urban legends, women not being in leadership positions because they don’t want it badly enough would be one of the tallest tales.

Welcome to Talking Points, a recurring Too Ambitious series where I’ll equip you with handy facts to present next time someone starts an exhausting conversation about gender equality and ambition.

While women have earned the majority of college and advanced degrees in the United States for years (and prior to the pandemic actually outnumbered men in the paid workforce), they are still substantially underrepresented in leadership positions.

As the Center for American Progress laid out in their 2018 report….

  • In the legal profession, [women] are 45 percent of associates but only 22.7 percent of partners and 19 percent of equity partners.
  • In medicine, they represent 40 percent of all physicians and surgeons but only 16 percent of permanent medical school deans.
  • In academia, they have earned the majority of doctorates for eight consecutive years but are only 32 percent of full professors and 30 percent of college presidents.
  • In the financial services industry, they constitute 61 percent of accountants and auditors, 53 percent of financial managers, and 37 percent of financial analysts. But they are only 12.5 percent of chief financial officers in Fortune 500 companies.

The difference between women’s representation in the workforce and their representation in workplace leadership is so stark, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves looking for reasons why.

But the go-to explanations that have taken hold in both corporate boardrooms and popular culture aren’t just wrong, they stand in the way of addressing the real barriers women face to advancement.

Myth : Women lower their careers goals with age and parental status (more than men)

When you see that women make up around half the entry level workforce but just a fifth of the C-suite, you might assume that women have fewer ambitions, or dramatically lower their career goals with age, as compared to men. But findings from a 2017 Boston Consulting Group analysis show that women start their careers with just as much ambition as men and when their ambition levels do vary, they vary by company – not by family status.

As the authors write, “The problem is neither inherent nor related to motherhood; instead, it hinges on the day-to-day experiences of women at work. Ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured – or damaged – by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time.”

When companies prioritize gender diversity – all women (including mothers) are eager to advance.

And yet, for every 100 men promoted and hired to managerial positions, just 72 women are promoted and hired for the same role, according to a 2019 analysis. For women of color, that number is even lower, with just 68 Latina women and 58 Black women being promoted to manager for every 100 entry-level men promoted to the same job.

Knowing that women start their careers with as much ambition as men, and that having children does not make women less ambitious, but a company culture that fails to prioritize gender equity and diversity does, we should be questioning the corporate cultures that so clearly fail to support women – particularly women of color – rather than blaming them for their lack of representation in leadership.

Myth: Women are more committed to their families (and less committed to their careers) than their male counterparts

Work/family balance is still largely framed as a women’s issue – as though women are the only ones in the workplace with family responsibilities. And while it’s true that women still take on the disproportionate share of unpaid household and caregiving labor, the data show that nearly everyone, regardless of gender, places a higher value on their families than on their work.

In other words, men and women do not have fundamentally different priorities when it comes to balancing work and family, however, when it comes to the workplace, men on average, advance far more than women, even as their family responsibilities increase.

An analysis from Harvard Business Review concludes that it’s not a difference between men and women that creates this gap, but “a general culture of overwork that hurts both sexes and locks gender inequality in place”.

When women become mothers, they are often expected, even encouraged, to scale back at work, while men are expected to limit the time they spend on family responsibilities. These subtle differences in the ways men and women are treated in the workplace when they become parents is part of what puts them in very different places professionally.

“Our survey data and other research suggest that when high-achieving, highly educated professional women leave their jobs after becoming mothers, only a small number do so because they prefer to devote themselves exclusively to motherhood; the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement,” write the study authors.

“What holds women back at work is not some unique challenge of balancing the demands of work and family but rather a general problem of overwork that prevails in contemporary corporate culture. Women and men alike suffer as a result. But women pay higher professional costs.

Myth: Women don’t ask or negotiate for leadership positions

The other go-to narrative to explain away the gender leadership gap is that women lack the confidence, desire and/or ability to ask for promotions and positions of power.

And while that’s a myth we’ve already busted pretty exhaustively on “Too Ambitious”, here are some points that bear repeating.

Women who negotiate are more likely to be labeled aggressive and demanding and are less likely than their male counterparts to actually get the raises and promotions they’ve requested.

When women do reach leadership positions, they are more likely to be disliked and disrespected by peers.

A 2020 study linked this backlash directly to women’s ambitions: When women were arbitrarily assigned leadership positions, they were less likely to experience a decrease in likability. It was only when a woman actively chose to pursue a leadership position that she encountered penalties. This suggests that more than power, influence or success, women are penalized for the pursuit of those things.

And yet, efforts to push back against gender gaps continue to put the onus on women despite these penalties: We’re told to “be more confident,” “speak up,” to engage and negotiate — advice that perpetuates a false narrative that women are inherently less confident and ambitious, and that achieving gender equity is as simple as asking for it.

(Read the rest at: “This is the Price Women Pay For Wanting More”)

There is no amount of “asking for more” and “demanding what we deserve” that can solve for a workplace culture that undermines and penalizes women for doing the very things that lead to leadership and advancement.

And by perpetuating these myths that suggest men and women are fundamentally different in their desire for, interest in and pursuit of leadership, we overlook the very real barriers women continue to face to closing the gender leadership gap.

Image: Thomas Barwick/DigitalVision via GettyImages

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