For a majority of the past twenty years, the U.S. Secretary of State has been a woman. Over that same period of time, women have served as president of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Penn, Brown, Duke, and other elite universities. Since 2014, the chairman of the Federal Reserve—arguably the world’s single most important economic policymaker—has been a woman too. Meanwhile, female CEOs can be found at a wide range of U.S. companies, including General Motors, PepsiCo, IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Oracle, YouTube, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and Campbell Soup.
And of course, our country now has its first major-party female presidential nominee.
Despite all that, we continually hear that American society is not doing enough to promote women’s leadership. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, for example, has complained about the relatively low percentage of women in senior-level corporate jobs, and also about the “gender stereotypes” she believes are holding women back. In 2014, she launched a campaign urging people to stop describing assertive girls as “bossy.”
Everyone can agree that we should encourage young women to pursue their interests, discover their passions, and work to achieve their goals. However, it is misguided for society to exalt “leadership” as the mountain top of professional success.
As Katherine Connell of National Review has observed:
Most girls will not grow up to be leaders, and this isn’t a bad thing: Leadership is the calling of a few, by definition. Acting as if it should be a universal aspiration will inevitably set some kids up for disappointment and failure, and it devalues the work of the vast majority of people who don’t wield great power or influence, and don’t want to.
Indeed, when we tell young women to make the boardroom or the corner office their highest ambition, we implicitly denigrate the choices of those women who decide to be, say, schoolteachers, nurses, or stay-at-home moms. That may not be our intention, but it’s the unavoidable result of our fixation with women’s leadership.
Rather than obsess over the share of female executives at Fortune 500 companies, we should support practical measures that expand opportunity for all Americans, while keeping in mind that men and women often have divergent priorities.
On that score, Harvard Business School analysts Francesca Gino, Caroline Ashley Wilmuth, and Alison Wood Brooks published some fascinating research last year. After surveying male and female views of leadership and professional advancement, the Harvard team reported:
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 tradeoffs) with high-power positions, perceive power as less desirable though equally attainable, and are less likely to take advantage of opportunities for professional advancement.
In other words, many women don’t have a C-suite job because they don’t want a C-suite job. That doesn’t make them unambitious or unimpressive. It just means that certain things—family, friends, work-life balance—matter more to them than becoming a corporate executive.
To return to Katherine Connell’s point: Leadership is not a universal aspiration, and pretending otherwise does nothing to boost women’s confidence. In fact, it can damage women’s confidence, by making them feel like underachievers.
What we should do instead is remind women—especially young women—that there are countless ways to enjoy a successful, fulfilling life. Some people are eager to climb the corporate, organizational, or political ladder. Others are drawn to different kinds of work, including the work of motherhood. We all find reward and satisfaction in our own way.
Perhaps that’s too old-fashioned a message for the likes of Sheryl Sandberg. But it’s a message that happens to be true.