Gaining control over others versus gaining freedom from others’ control: Subtle frame changes shift gender differences in the desire for career advancement

Gender imbalances persist in the labor market. Despite entering the labor market at similar or greater rates than men, women ascend the organizational hierarchy slower and to lower heights. The underrepresentation of women in the highest-ranking and leadership roles contributes to persistent gender inequality in wages and organizational influence, which evokes both social justice and organizational efficiency concerns. Understanding the causes of this gender disparity in career advancement has captured the attention of scholars and the public for decades. It continues to be a central focus in organizational scholarship as this gender difference has proven stubbornly persistent.

The study of gender differences in career advancement has focused primarily on its demand-side antecedents, or the systemic, cultural, or individual biases that advantage men in the attainment of higher-ranking or leadership roles. However, others have focused on supply-side drivers of this gender difference in which the central motivating question has been: Do women have less interest than men in career advancement? Some have suggested that this is the case. They contend that gender differences in career advancement arise because men and women select into positions that align with their preferred position in the organizational hierarchy.

In this talk, I’ll challenge the conclusion that women have lower career aspirations than men. I contend that men and women have similar desires for career advancement, but that women’s desires are less likely than men’s to be realized. Career advancement is associated with having greater control over others. This is problematic for women because expressing a desire to control others violates proscriptive stereotypes for the female gender role and thus women often face negative judgments and backlash for expressing power over others.  I propose that shifting the salience of the association of career advancement from gaining control over others (i.e., social power) to gaining freedom from others’ control (i.e., personal power) helps women’s desire for career advancement to be realized because having personal power is a positive expectancy violation for women and a basic human drive.

I will first discuss the theoretical grounds underlying the claim that personal power is a positive expectancy violation for women and provide experimental support for the prediction. Building on these findings, I’ll argue that making salient the association between career advancement and personal power boosts women’s self-efficacy regarding hierarchical advancement. Consequently, this subtle switch in frame helps to “unlock” women’s desires for career advancement and boost women’s leadership confidence. I will present the results of a series experiments that support these predictions. I’ll discuss the implications of these findings for gender stereotypes and gender differences in career advancement.