Are women underrepresented in most high-levels in organizations because of a difference in core life goals women and men hold? Research conducted by three Harvard Business School faculty members—Francesca Gino, Caroline Wilmuth and Alison Wood Brooks—and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds differences in perception of professional advancement between the sexes “and their views affect their decisions to climb the corporate ladder (or not).”

“Across nine studies using diverse sample populations (executives in high-power positions, graduates of a top MBA program, undergraduate students, and online panels of working adults) and over 4,000 participants, we find that, compared to men, women have a higher number of life goals, place less importance on power-related goals, associate more negative outcomes (e.g., goal conflict and trade-offs) with high-power positions, perceive power as less desirable though equally attainable, and are less likely to take advantage of opportunities for professional advancement,” the study concludes.

The researchers note that they an accepted definition of “power” as the desire for the means to influence other people, but suggest it might be fruitful to look at other definitions of power, such as “helping an organization achieve its objectives or run more effectively,” and their impact on women’s careers.

“In studies 1 and 2, when asked to list their core goals in life, women listed more life goals overall than men, and a smaller proportion of their goals related to achieving power at work. In studies 3 and 4, compared to men, women viewed high-level positions as less desirable yet equally attainable,” the researchers report.

Other studies found that women associated high-level positions with conflict, which lessened those posts’ desirability. “Finally, in studies 8 and 9, men and women alike rated power as one of the main consequences of professional advancement. Our findings reveal that men and women have different perceptions of what the experience of holding a high-level position will be like, with meaningful implications for the perpetuation of the gender disparity that exists at the top of organizational hierarchies.”

Identifying causes of the gender gap in perceptions their research finds isn’t within the scope of their work, the researchers write. “Our findings may be the result of biological gender differences, learned preferences that have developed in response to cultural norms and gender-based discrimination, or both. In addition, supply-side factors (e.g., personal goals) and demand-side factors (e.g., gender-based backlash and discrimination) are inextricably linked. People learn how to think and behave based on their experiences, observations, and interactions in the world,” they note. “For example, work on gender and volubility has shown that women speak up less often than do men owing to an acute awareness of the backlash that women frequently receive for voicing their opinions. Similarly, a woman may innately desire power, but she may see how women in high-level positions act and are treated and decide that power is an undesirable goal for her.”

Read their research paper here. Gino and Brooks’ article in Harvard Business Review discussing their research can be found here. Their findings and conclusions bear discussion and is just the place for it! Add your opinions, reactions or questions and join the conversation.

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