When Academic Studies Don't Translate

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford and the lead researcher on Lean In, responds to an op-ed in the New York Times about women and leadership.

One of the most insidious ways that a society perpetuates inequality is to convince ourselves that the people who don’t have power actually don’t want it. This is the exact conclusion that many people are coming to after reading “When Leaning In Doesn’t Pay Off,” an opinion piece published in Sunday's New York Times. The piece details a study which found that in comparison to men in similar positions of high job authority, women reap fewer “intrinsic rewards,” – defined as deriving meaning in their work. Many have interpreted this finding to mean that women in high-powered positions just don’t find their work as rewarding as do their male counterparts, which explains why there are so few women at the top – they just don’t want to be there.

For the record, this is the wrong conclusion based on the data presented. What this study actually found was that BOTH men and women who have high job authority and feel like they have influence on the job derived a lot of meaning from their work. However, in comparison to high-powered men, high-powered women were less likely to feel like they had influence and autonomy on the job, which understandably would undermine how fulfilling the women found their work to be. In all likelihood, their feelings are an accurate gauge – which is to say that women feel less influential because they are less influential as many studies have documented. For example, the opinion of a female expert often carries less weight than does the opinion of a male expert. So just as women with high job authority tend to receive less compensation (lower pay and smaller bonuses) than men of equal rank, so too do they have less influence and autonomy on the job.

Academic findings often get lost in translation. This is especially the case when the title given to an article delivers the wrong message and obscures the truth by sending the reader down the wrong road. This pattern leads to unproductive conversations. What we really need to do is to decide if we are going to change the system so that when women get into positions of authority they have the same amount of influence and autonomy as men. Or are we going to keep misinterpreting academic research in ways that perpetuate the status quo. If we throw up our hand and say (falsely) that “this is just what women want,” I think we all lose.