There is a striking gender gap in leadership positions across our society. Women represent 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, only 15 percent of executive officers at those companies, less than 20 percent of full professors in the natural sciences, and only 6 percent of partners in venture capital firms. Scholars of the gap suggest that some of the explanation relates to how people perceive and react to women – the gender-based discrimination we so often read about in the news, which is perpetuated by both men and women. Compared to men, research shows, women are perceived as less competent and lacking in leadership potential. They receive fewer job offers and lower starting salaries, and are more likely to encounter challenges to, and skepticism of, their ideas and abilities.

These reasons no doubt play a role. But, as new research suggests, there is another reason that may also be important: women feel less happy than men when they occupy managerial positions, and expect to make more tradeoffs between life and work in high level positions. This points to a different way of understanding the problem and potentially solving it.

Such a gender imbalance in leadership roles has costs for both women and society. Women may not end up with access to the type of career they want. As for firms, a recent paper based on data from nearly 22,000 firms globally found that going from having no women in corporate leadership (i.e., the CEO, the board, and other C-suite positions) to a 30 percent female share is associated with a 15 percent increase in profitability. Such benefits are due, at least in part, to the diversity in thinking and perspective that women and men bring to the table. As the researchers found, a single female CEO doesn’t perform better than her male counterpart when controlling for gender in the rest of the firm, but a higher rate of gender diversity throughout the organization does have an impact. There is a very good business case, then, for organizations interested in increasing gender diversity. But how can they get there, knowing that there are many reasons that may hold women back?

This is a question addressed in a recent paper by Brockmann and colleagues. In fact, the paper compellingly demonstrates that for women in positions of leadership, the level of happiness and life satisfaction is lower than that of their male counterparts. To show this, the researchers used data from 1984 till 2011 from a large national household sample and annual panel survey in Germany. The data was collected from 27,000 non-managers and 3,174 managers, a third of whom were women. Survey respondents provided their answer to the same question, year after year: How happy are you at present with your life as a whole? They could choose a number on a scale from zero (‘totally unhappy’) to ten (‘totally happy’). What the data clearly shows is that life satisfaction does not differ between men and women who do not hold managerial positions: for both, the level of life satisfaction is around 7.1 out of 10. But it differs substantially for those in management: females are much less happy than their male counterparts. While men reported an average level of life satisfaction of about 7.3, their female, manager counterparts reported about a 7. Climbing up the organizational ladder, it seems, is a source of happiness for men but not for women.

Top level positions in organizations come with many benefits, from higher pay to more influence, prestige and power. But they also require a larger time commitment. For women, that time commitment is often viewed as the need to make tradeoffs between family and work activities. Promotions to top positions in an organization, in fact, often involve sacrificing free time for money. And women realize that’s the case.

In research my colleagues and I conducted, we find that when men and women are presented with the possibility of a promotion to a higher level position in their organization (i.e., they are given the opportunity to professionally advance), they find the position to be as attainable as men do, but less desirable. The reason is that they see the position generating not only positive outcomes (such as money and prestige) as much as men do, but also negative ones (such as tradeoffs they’ll need to make and time constraints). That’s where men and women differ: in how much they predict these negative outcomes will affect their lives. The tradeoffs and constraints women predict they’ll experience when reaching high-level positions are related to the fact that, as we find in our work, women have a higher number of life goals as compared to men. In some of our studies, we asked different groups of men and women, from college undergraduates to executives, to list their core goals in life – which we defined for them as the things that occupy their thoughts on a routine basis, that they deeply care about, or that motivate their behavior and decisions. The goals people listed varied, from getting married, having children or working out regularly, to finding a well-respected job and becoming rich. In study after study, we found that women listed more goals than men.

Importantly, what we could not demonstrate with our data is whether the differences in negative outcomes are simply expected or are, in fact, real. Research has found that women often do not get the support they may need at home, when caring for house-related activities (e.g., doing laundry or making dinner) or when caring for children. It is possible, then, that women may worry their partner won’t step up and take over some of the domestic duties – and that such worry is larger for them than for men. The research by Brockmann and colleagues provides evidence for this possibility. 

There are likely various reasons for the happiness differences between men and women. One of them, though, is that men and women differ in their time preferences: Women appreciate spare and flexible time more than men do. Interestingly, the research by Brockmann and colleagues also shows that women find higher levels of pay to be less rewarding than men. By how much? According to the researchers’ estimate, it would take an extra 12,000 euros of pay to boost a woman’s life satisfaction by the same amount that a man would gain from an extra 5,000 euros of pay. What this translates into is a clear recommendation for organizations and their leaders: if they are serious about the benefits of female leadership, they may need to pay more for it.
Answering the question of why women are still underrepresented in high-level positions in organization is not easy. But what is suggested by my work, and the new research by Brockmann and colleagues, is that the reasons go beyond potential discrimination and access to resources. Women may consciously decide not to climb the organizational ladder even when they are well qualified. Organizations and leaders can influence this decision, though. As suggested by the work of Brockmann and colleagues, they can do so by structuring and compensating managerial work differently. Building in more breathing space for leadership positions, and allowing for flexible career paths, are the types of solutions that could lead both men and women to reach high levels positions in organization and experience the happiness that can come with them.