Leah Sheppard Explores Gender Differences in Career Aspirations

By Eric Hollenbeck

In the United States, there are more than 49 million women who are full-time wage and salary workers—comprising almost 56 percent of the workforce. Despite a significant increase in the number of women in the workforce since the 1970s, there remains a highly disproportionate number of women who hold elite leadership positions compared to men.

Leah Sheppard, assistant professor of management, examined gender differences in leadership aspirations and work-life preferences among college-aged men and women, which was published in the scientific journal Sex Roles. Sheppard’s research helps shed light on why these gender gaps in leadership positions exist within business and politics.

Sheppard surveyed college undergraduate students on topics such as career aspirations and perceived leadership ability; how they view their likelihood of obtaining leadership positions; their individual interest in elite leadership positions; what characteristics respondents attribute to elite leadership positions; willingness to accept a promotion; and individual preferences for several job and life attributes such as earning a high salary, more leisure time, greater respect, etc.

Results from the study showed women perceived their leadership ability as being lower than those of men. They also perceived themselves as less likely than men to obtain leadership positions in the future. Women also placed more importance on family and personal relationships than career aspirations.

Changing the view on leadership

The data provides insights into ways organizations may bridge those gaps and create a culture that fosters equality in leadership positions, says Sheppard. “Greater success in closing this gap might be achieved by efforts aimed at reducing discrimination and determining how women can be encouraged to view leadership positions as more possible and desirable for their future selves.”

As for the underlying cause for why many women feel they might not be able to attain high-level leadership positions, Sheppard thinks it has a lot to do with representation. “It’s the scarcity of women in those high ranking roles that influences women’s ability to see themselves in those roles,” she says. “They don’t see a lot of women, or are not exposed to a lot of women [in leadership positions].”

Fortunately, organizations and universities can take steps to create more balanced representation. For example, at the university-level, professors and instructors should be mindful when it comes to developing their course curriculum, making sure to offer more balanced representations of women in strong, leadership positions. Sheppard does this in her own undergraduate-level leadership classes, making sure case studies and other examples have an equitable amount of both male and female representation. “As educators, we have a really big obligation to depict balanced representation,” she says.

“If young women are not exposed to it at this time in their lives, when they are really trying to figure out what they want to be, what they want to do, then they just don’t see those roles as perhaps being possible.”