There are Fewer Women Than Men in Some Jobs But Maybe Not for the Reason You Think

Next time you hear about women being underrepresented in business, you might want to consider this.
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Next time you hear about women being underrepresented in business, you might want to consider this.

Did you know that of all CEO positions in S&P 500 companies, women hold just twenty-two spots? Well, unless you live in an alternate universe, yeah—you probably did. Maybe you didn’t know the exact percentage (4.4 percent, FYI), but I’m willing to bet that you could’ve made a respectable ballpark estimate. That women are underrepresented in the top tier of the business world is well-known. What isn’t as well-established is why.

There are three typical explanations for the dearth of women in these positions, summed up aptly by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in a recent article for Harvard Business Review: Either “(1) [Women] are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass ceiling, an invisible career barrier based on prejudiced stereotypes that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power.” While the conversation in the feminist community tends to focus on option three, there is evidence to support option two—that women are simply less interested in those positions than men. I’m here to make the case that, while option two may be true, it’s not something of which we women ought to be ashamed.

Men Aren’t the Only Scale for Success

A recent analysis, incidentally also from Harvard, found strong evidence that women and men have different core life goals:

“Across nine studies using diverse sample populations (executives in high-power positions, recent graduates of a top MBA program, undergraduate students, and online panels of working adults) and [more than] four thousand 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., time constraints and trade-offs) with high-power positions, perceive power as less desirable, and are less likely to take advantage of opportunities for professional advancement. Women view high-level positions as equally attainable as men do but less desirable.”

Now, I don’t think of myself as a peevish person, but I do have one very particular pet peeve. Few things aggravate me more than using male behavior as the supreme yardstick for all human behavior. Too often, even among feminists, when we find a discrepancy between how men and women spend their time, we immediately ask why women are not doing what men are doing without asking why men aren’t doing what women are doing. Too often, we see that women behave differently than men and assume that it must be the result of oppression rather than, I don’t know, a particular intelligence or virtue in which women tend to excel. Too often, we seek to “remedy” the discrepancy by calling on women to imitate male behavior without pausing to consider aspects of female behavior that ought to be lauded. With that in mind, I think it is worth exploring the positive side of a very obvious and undeniable gender discrepancy. I am not suggesting that we ought to dismiss the possibility of sexism or oppression. I simply refuse to accept that they are the only reason that women don’t act more like men. With all due respect to any men reading this, maybe women don’t act like men because men don’t always know the best way to act.

Goals Are Goals; They Just Look Different

I think that one reason people resist the notion that women tend to be less interested in high-level positions is that it seems to suggest that women are less ambitious than men. But that is only the case if you accept a narrow definition of ambition.

Take my fiancé, for example. He errs on the side of being almost singularly focused on his career. Yes, he loves snowboarding and watching sports. And in an ideal world, he’d love to learn to cook and run a sub-21-minute 5k. But when push comes to shove, he doesn’t have a problem setting those things aside if it will allow him to pursue his rather lofty career goals. Many would call him ambitious, and they would be right.

I could not be any more different. Unlike him, my eye is not fixed on one particular goal far off in the distance but on a variety of goals closer at hand. Since joining the workforce a couple years ago, I have not spent my time climbing a corporate ladder. But I started blogging, which led me to freelance writing. I have run two marathons, three half marathons, and probably a dozen shorter races. I have tried a hundred new recipes, picked up yoga, and read dozens of novels. Each of these is part of the well-rounded life to which I aspire. Don’t get me wrong, I care about my job and career, but I never allow it to crowd out my other interests, not because I’m not ambitious but because my goal is to achieve lots of goals.

No two approaches are the same, and one doesn’t trump the other. Often, I have to remind my fiancé to expand his horizon and nourish other aspects of his life. Often, he has to remind me that I cannot be in two places at once. He refuses to allow his multiplicity of interests to interfere with his singular goal. I refuse to allow any singular goal to interfere with my multiplicity of interests. That doesn’t make him more ambitious than I am. That makes us ambitious in different ways.

The same reasoning can be applied to those who pursue parenthood over a particular career. People tend to think of parenthood as a less ambitious goal than anything career- or money-oriented. Once again, I think that is a bit shortsighted.

Is there anything more ambitious than the desire to be a good mom (or dad)? Just as CEO positions are hard to achieve, so too is being an exceptional parent. Think about it, good parents help their kids achieve happiness and fulfillment. Guess what? There is no recipe for doing so. You can’t simply add a few doses of fulfillment and a scoop of happiness. It takes constant care and attention, and it comes with no guarantee of success. Even the smartest and wealthiest struggle with parenthood. Wanting to run Google may be ambitious, but wanting to be a great parent is pretty damn ambitious, too. And yet, we so often speak of a parent’s decision—both men’s and women’s—to take a less rigorous career path or stop working altogether in order to focus on their children as a kind of failure, as if to say that they are sacrificing their ambitions. In reality, however, they are simply prioritizing one lofty ambition over another and making the sacrifices they’ve concluded are necessary to do so.

Seek Happiness, Not Power

I think the controversy over whom is running the world’s biggest companies is inherently tied to our definition of success. Often, when I stand back and ask, “Who are the most successful people?” at first blush, the obvious and undeniable answer appears to be men. But when you really delve into the question, it becomes much less clear. Sure, if you measure success in dollars and titles, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that in the game of life, men have won. But money is only one measure of value and certainly not the only.

Maybe instead of asking who has the most money and prestige, we ought to be asking who is the happiest? And if happiness is the goal, then accruing unlimited power and money is certainly not the way to go about achieving it.

This isn’t just an empty cliché; it’s fact. A 2010 study found that while wealth is a factor in one’s life evaluation and emotional well-being, it does not actually add to your happiness beyond $75,000. But I didn’t need someone to conduct a study in order to know that. All of my life experiences have taught me that, while money may elicit happiness to a point, eventually it can detract from it. This is true of power and almost any other form of wealth. I’ve literally never heard anyone say that the key to happiness is an abundance of wealth and power. And well they shouldn’t—because it’s not. Money and power are both means to various ends but not fulfilling in and of themselves. And while they may be necessary for happiness (I’m not convinced that’s true), they are certainly not sufficient. If millions of dollars and immeasurable power are not sufficient for happiness, why do we consider their achievement the pinnacle of success?

So, if women are not as interested in the pomp and frills of the world’s best-paid jobs, maybe there is a good reason for it. Maybe women are less likely to buy into the false notion that more money, more prestige, and more power will necessarily make them happy. Maybe they are more aware of the emptiness of excess. And if that’s the case, then that’s not something we ought to be lamenting. From where I stand, that makes us more in tune with reality—not less.

My point here is that a lack of women in the world’s top-paid positions does not necessarily reflect poorly on us. It may very well be evidence of a certain intelligence, perspective, or clarity in which women excel. So, when the next statistic comes out telling us that women and men are doing things differently, instead of simply assuming that women are being arbitrarily held back from living a full masculine life, how about we consider that, just maybe, we women are on to something. Then we’d start to see some balance in our news coverage, more equality between the sexes, and, dare I say, more true feminism at work.

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