Stephen Lam / Reuters

A new study by researchers at the Harvard Business School found that women and men see job promotions as equally attainable, but women are more likely to anticipate negative outcomes as a result of moving up in the workplace. The researchers had hypothesized that the difference in male and female preferences for achieving high-level positions would help explain the dearth of women at the top of the corporate ladder.

To test their hypothesis, they conducted nine studies with over 4,000 participants—including executives, MBA graduates, undergraduate students, and other working adults. In one of the experiments, 450 workers were told to imagine getting a higher role at their current organization, and then predict the likelihood of positive and negative outcomes. The positive outcomes included happiness, money, and opportunity, and the negative outcomes included stress, difficult trade-offs or sacrifices, and conflicts with life goals. What researchers found is that women and men expected the same level of positive outcomes coming from a job promotion, but that women anticipated stronger negative outcomes than men did.

Researchers also found other factors that could influence women’s likelihood to pursue promotions: Women placed less importance on power-related goals in the workplace and they were less likely to take advantage of personal development opportunities. The team writes in study, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that across their experiments, this “profound and consistent gender gap” tended to make women shy away from seeking promotions.

Other factors could explain this phenomenon. It is tough to blame women for finding promotions less desirable than their male counterparts when affordable childcare is not an option for many families in America. And when only about 10 percent of women are leaving the workplace to care for children full-time, it is hard to imagine a life in which high-achieving women have a sane work-life balance.

This story is part of our Next America: Workforce project, which is supported by a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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