Theories on Why Women Don't Enjoy Succeeding at Work as Much as Men Do

New research suggests that men are more likely to reap the emotional benefits of doing well in their careers than women are. 

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In yesterday's New York Times opinions section, three University of Toronto sociologists published an article with an unfortunate headline--"When Leaning In Doesn't Pay Off"--coupled with even more unfortunate art: a hot pink illustration of a woman in business attire with a Cathy cartoon-like "ack" expression. Nevertheless, the piece is an interesting look at a disturbing finding from a recent study: Men get more benefits, both financial and emotional, from being in positions of authority than women do.

Women in authority, on the other hand, are paid less than men and also "reap fewer of the less tangible, yet deeply meaningful, rewards of power." Rewards like feeling a sense of autonomy, a sense of influence, and a sense that work is intrinsically rewarding.

The researchers call this phenomenon the "psychosocial rewards gap," and theorize that it may be one of the reasons women drop out of high-powered careers more often than men.

The question then becomes, why do women experience less emotional reward from their authority? And, conversely, why do men experience more emotional reward from authority than women (in fact, the study showed that men feel good about having job authority even when that authority is merely symbolic)?

Many of the likely answers are old hat: boys are socialized to be competitive and dominant, while women are punished for not being "nice;" men with high-powered jobs frequently have helpmeet wives, while few powerful women have stay-at-home spouses to help them enjoy their jobs sans domestic stress; men in authority have boys club networks, while women often find themselves lonely at the top.

Then, of course, there's the media, which has been making female authority look un-fun for as long as there have been women in the c-suite. Hardly a day goes by without a hands-wringing piece about the difficulties of business travel as a woman, or the overwhelming pull of motherhood on working women, or the tragedy of being too busy with your job to have kids. No profile of a powerful woman omits the questions about the kids (or pathetic lack thereof) and the faux sympathizing about how hard it must be to balance it all.

Fiction is hardly better. In her memoir, comedian Mindy Kaling humorously complains about how movies portray high-powered working women as uptight, harried shrews "barking orders into [a] hands-free phone device and yelling, "'I have no time for this!'"

Also, Kaling asks, "since when does holding a job necessitate that a woman pull her hair back in a severe, tight bun?"

Indeed. And who wants to be seen as the harried shrew with the evil ballerina bun?

It's not surprising that the continued cultural ambivalence about women in positions of power affects women who have obtained such power.

"Women who sacrifice and lean in yet do not feel the subjective rewards of their positional authority may ultimately be less inclined to stay in those positions," write the sociologists.

So what to do about the psychosocial rewards gap?

It's likely that the necessary cultural shifts are already underway. We're seeing more women in positions of power, both in reality and on television in the movies. Young girls will grow up in a world where a female senator or Secretary of State is not an oddity (though the media will likely still scrutinize her hair and makeup).

The women in the University of Toronto study were, I imagine, Baby Boomers or at least Gen X-ers, since most people don't hit their career prime until early middle age (the average age for an S&P 500 CEO is 55). It will be interesting to see how today's young women will fare when they get to positions of authority. Will they, weaned on a diet of New York Times opt-out stories, feel like failed superwomen? Or will they relish their power, as have so many men before them?