Study Finds a Persistent and Longstanding Gender Gap in Leadership Aspirations

A new study by scholars at Washington State University and Bocconi University in Italy finds that women in the United States are still less likely than men to express a desire to take on leadership or managerial roles. According to an analysis of data from leadership studies conducted over six decades, the gender gap in leadership aspirations translated into more than two male leaders to every one female leader at the highest levels.

For this study, the researchers accessed 174 study samples from the 1960s until 2020, representing more than 138,000 study participants. The studies all assessed leadership aspirations from a range of academic fields including economics, psychology, law, and management.

The analysis could not test specific reasons why women were less inclined to want to take on leadership positions but the researchers said there are likely a range of factors, including internalized sexism. Other reasons may include women having more negative experiences than men in the workplace, including discrimination, which can lower their future aspirations. Women may also fear that taking on high-level positions would have a negative impact on their family lives.

“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,” said Leah Sheppard, a Washington State University associate professor and co-lead author of the study. “If we want to get to a more equitable 50/50 split, we need to have a conversation around leadership aspirations. We need to think about what women need to be able to see themselves in these roles.”

Dr. Sheppard holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from the University of Western Ontario. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia.

The full study, “A Meta-Analytic Review of the Gender Difference in Leadership Aspirations,” was published on the website of the Journal of Vocational Behavior. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Gender GapResearch/Study


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