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Harvard Business School Study Attributes Leadership Gender Gap to Corporate Structures

300px-Harvard_business_school_baker_library_2009a2A recent study by two professors from Harvard Business School (HBS) and a third from Hunter College examined the career ambitions of 25,000 HBS alumni to help understand the gender gap that exists in senior management positions. They found that despite similar ambitions upon joining the workforce, male respondents were much more likely than their female counterpoints to feel like their goals were met. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the survey’s results showed that this disparity had more to do with corporate structures than with women “opting out” to have families.

The study, “Rethink What You ‘Know’ About High-Achieving Women,” was conducted by HBS Professor Robin J. Ely, Pamela Stone of Hunter College and HBS Gender Initiative Assistant Director Colleen C. Ammerman and published this month in Harvard Business Review. Instead of finding that women’s careers were sidetracked because they chose to prioritize family over work, the researchers discovered that the women who left their jobs after having children did so because “they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement” or facing other career limitations. “It simply isn’t true that a large proportion of Harvard alumnae have ‘opted out’ to care for children,” they continued.  

Another of the study’s key findings: The vast majority of women surveyed anticipated that their careers would rank equally with those of their partners, but many of them were disappointed.

The researchers hope the study will help increase public understanding of the actual factors that contribute to the persistent gender gap, shifting focus from women’s individual decisions regarding family to how gender stereotypes reinforce structural hurdles women face in the workplace.

“Our women alums are less satisfied with their careers than men are, but we would say that workplace disappointments and shortcomings are…to blame,” Ely told the Harvard Crimson.

In conclusion, Ely and her co-authors call for companies to evaluate ways to institutionalize a level playing field for all employees. “The misguided assumption that high-potential women are ‘riskier’ hires than their male peers because they are apt to discard their careers after parenthood has become yet another bias for women to contend with.”

Read the complete study, “Rethink What You ‘Know’ About High-Achieving Women,” in HBR.