Why Are Women More Cautious About Promotions?

New research shows that women and men view promotions as equally attainable, but women often see the negative aspects of more responsibility.

Why Are Women More Cautious About Promotions?
[Photo: Steve Collender on Shutterstock]

According to a new study by researchers at Harvard Business School, there’s no gender gap when it comes to thinking that a promotion is within reach. But women are more likely than men to view the path to power as less desirable, as well as paved with potentially negative outcomes.


It’s no secret that women are still underrepresented in the C-suite and on executive boards. And women-owned companies make up just 36.2% of all nonfarm businesses, according to the most recent analysis of U.S. Census data by the National Women’s Business Council. Yet while strategies for achieving parity abound, researchers Francesca Gino, Caroline Ashley Wilmuth, and Alison Wood Brooks suggest that their findings point to a reason that women are failing to crack the glass ceiling.

To test just how women and men view professional advancement, the researchers analyzed the results of nine studies using such diverse sample populations as executives in high-power positions, recent graduates of a top MBA program, undergraduate students, and online panels of working adults. They surveyed over 4,000 participants in total.

The first two studies gathered information on core life goals, and the next two asked how high-level positions were viewed. Studies five, six, and seven had participants discuss the possibility of a promotion and how it would impact their lives. Finally, in the last two studies, participants were asked to rate power.

Overall, the researchers found that women listed more life goals overall than men, and a smaller proportion of their goals related to achieving power at work. Women also viewed high-level positions as less desirable yet equally attainable, anticipating that happiness, prestige, and money would follow. The difference came when women anticipated more negative outcomes such as conflicts and trade-offs, which the researchers say explains the relationship between gender and the desirability of professional advancement.

This conflict between professional and personal goals and the negative perception of power indicates a bigger impact on women’s pursuit of promotions than men, the researchers found.

This squares with other research in neuroscience. Numerous studies point to the brain’s need to protect us when we are under threat from a perceived negative source, and our brains tend to process negative data faster and more thoroughly. Humans also tend to dwell on the negative, especially when it comes in the form of feedback from another–even more so when it is the voice inside our own head. And women, in particular, tend to fall prey to impostor syndrome, which can make even the most accomplished (think: Tina Fey and Meryl Streep) feel like frauds at points throughout their careers.


The new Harvard research also dovetails with a recent global report from Weber Shandwick on CEOs. The report revealed that not many women surveyed aspired to reach the corner office. Less than a quarter (23%) claimed to have their eye on the top spot, in contrast to 32% of their male peers. Sixty-eight percent of North American female executives dismissed the notion of rising to the helm entirely. That ambition climbed to 29% globally when women executives worked for a female CEO.

Although the “arms race” is on to provide better parental leave policies, the reality is that most companies–including ones with numerous perks like Facebook–don’t offer child care, but do offer day care for dogs. According to a National Study of Employers, only 7% of companies offer onsite childcare nationwide.

And despite some small progress, women are still doing the lion’s share of housework and child care. Combine that additional responsibility at home with the fact that women’s requests for flextime are viewed more harshly than men’s, and it’s not surprising that women might be more cautious about taking on extra responsibility at work.

Perhaps if more companies had established workplace cultures like that of Palo Alto Software (whose CEO is female) that recognize women’s pursuit of promotions shouldn’t have to conflict with their personal lives, it may just be easier for them to imagine a climb up the career ladder free of the negative repercussions.

[via The Atlantic]


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.