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Low female C-suite representation isn’t because of a ‘glass ceiling,’ rather a choice to ‘lean out,’ according to new research

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. –  On the 2018 Fortune 500 list, you’ll find a number of impressive leaders of some of the most successful companies in the world. Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, the list goes on. However, of those 500 companies, only 24 of them are led by female CEOs – that’s just 4.8 percent of the list.

Judy Scully Callahan

Warrington Senior Lecturer of Management Judy Scully Callahan

Examples like this highlight the sparse numbers of women in C-suite-level positions. While past studies have made it clear that the underrepresentation of women in executive positions is, in part, due to bias and discrimination, new research from the University of Florida Warrington College of Business suggests the larger cause stems from women choosing to ‘lean out’ or self-select out of these higher-level jobs.

“We’ve found that regardless of job characteristics, women report they are more likely to choose out of C-suite positions,” said Judy Scully Callahan, Warrington senior lecturer and researcher. “It appears that women are consciously deciding not to pursue the C-suite level. Instead, they are choosing other paths. The underrepresentation of women in executive roles really seems to be a supply issue, not a demand issue.”

Callahan, along with colleagues David Scott Kiker, Mary Brtek Kiker and Jonathan McNulty of Auburn University – Montgomery and UF management Ph.D. student Valeria Alterman, designed a study to determine to what extent women self-select out of executive level positions due to the demands of these jobs conflicting with their other life goals.

The researchers asked male and female respondents in corporate roles to review 108 executive job vacancy profiles with various requirement levels, as measured by a team of experts, across five dimensions including amount of travel required, potential for burnout, level of pay, degree of social support and work/life balance intrusion. Respondents were asked to indicate both how likely they were to accept the job and how fulfilled they would be if they accepted the job.

“The results of this study indicate that men were significantly more willing to accept any executive position as compared to women,” the researchers write. “Additionally, men reported greater likelihood of experiencing fulfillment from the job relative to women. Since women are less likely to accept executive level jobs and are less likely to expect fulfillment from these jobs, the results of this study indicate women are ‘leaning out’ of executive level positions. This finding is consistent with the supply-side explanation for the underrepresentation of women in the executive suite: that is, women choose not to accept jobs in the executive suite.”

Callahan and colleagues also found some curious differences between men and women in making the decision to accept a job. While both men and women indicated they would be more willing to accept a job with higher pay, women indicated they would also find the same job significantly less fulfilling.

Outside of pay, men and women both indicated that a position’s work/life balance intrusion level was a substantial barrier to accepting a position and the feeling of fulfillment in that position. However, for women, the intrusiveness of a job on their non-work-related interests was a larger deterrent than for men.

With these findings, the researchers suggest that instead of only trying to make organizational changes to draw more women into executive positions, companies should also more vigilantly search for the right woman for the job based on her personal goals. They also suggest that accusing companies of not hiring female executives isn’t the answer, either.

“Rather than blaming companies for the lack of women in executive level positions, perhaps researchers should continue to explore reasons why women might make the personal decision to eschew such positions.”


The complete research, titled “Gender differences in executive job acceptance and desirability: A policy capturing approach,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research.