Women in the U.S. are still significantly underrepresented in leadership roles when compared with their presence in the workforce, according to a study co-led by a Washington State University professor.
The study, published this month in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, found that women are less likely than men to express a desire to take on leadership or managerial roles.
Leah Sheppard, an associate professor with the Carson College of Business at WSU, led the research alongside Ekaterina Netchaeva, an assistant professor at the Bocconi University in Italy. The pair analyzed data from leadership studies conducted over six decades to explore why the gender difference persists in aspirations for top roles.
The results revealed a small but significant gender difference in leadership aspirations, which translated to more than two male leaders for every female leader at the highest levels.
“If we want to get to a more equitable 50/50 split, we need to have a conversation around leadership aspirations,” Sheppard said. “We need to think about what women need to be able to see themselves in these roles.”
The researchers say the findings don’t indicate a lack of ambition from women — as prior studies have shown, women do want promotions.
While their analysis didn’t test specific reasons women were less likely to take on leadership roles at work, Netchaeva believes there are a range of probable factors, including internalized sexism.
“It may have to do with the process of ‘self-stereotyping,’ where individuals internalize their respective gender stereotypes and voluntarily conform to gender norms,” Netchaeva said. “For women, this means internalizing a more communal stereotype, which leads them to view themselves as less similar to a leader and, consequently, to aspire to leadership positions to a lesser extent.”
Alternatively, men may see themselves as the masculine stereotype, indicating greater control over themselves and others.
Past research indicates women are more likely than men to have negative experiences in the workplace, like discrimination, which can lower future aspirations. Women may also fear the toll high-level positions could have on their families.
“What this suggests is that, even if we were to drastically reduce bias and systematic gender discrimination, we still wouldn’t expect to see equal representation of women in leadership roles,” Sheppard said.