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It is no secret that a significant gender gap exists in corporate leadership. Women are under-represented in C-suites and boardrooms, relative to their proportions within companies and industries. Many organizations have instituted programs designed to support women’s leadership development and increase diversity of all kinds within senior ranks yet this commitment has not translated into reality. In fact, even among highly-educated men and women, it remains the case that men are more likely to hold leadership positions.

We saw this disparity in stark relief when Harvard Business School (HBS) undertook a comprehensive study of the career and life experiences of its alumni. This research, the Life and Leadership After HBS survey, found a persistent gender gap on multiple dimensions of corporate leadership. Despite starting out with the same MBA training, men’s and women’s careers diverged by the time they reached mid-career. Among alumni in Generation X (ages 31-47 at the time of survey) and the Baby Boom (ages 48-66), men were more likely to have direct reports, to hold profit-and-loss positions, and to be on the top management team at their companies. They were also more likely than their female peers to serve on an outside corporate board—in fact, Gen X men were more than twice as likely as Gen X women to hold a directorship, and the gap is only slightly narrower among Baby Boomers. Men also felt more content with their careers, regardless of their positions: they reported being more satisfied with their professional accomplishments, the sense of meaning they got from work, and their opportunities for career growth.

Why do such gaps persist, even among an ambitious, highly-educated population? The data showed us that it isn’t that women simply care less about their careers. They were just as likely as men to say that meaningful work, opportunities for career development, and professional accomplishments were important to them. When we asked alumni to tell us what they believe explains women’s lagging career advancement, their responses squared with much of what is heard in the media and public conversations about gender and leadership. Although many cited such factors as a lack of role models, lack of access to influential mentors and sponsors, and lack of support from supervisors, the two top-cited reasons, by both men and women, were women’s “prioritizing family over work" and “taking leaves or reducing work hours."

The fact that women tend to advance more slowly than men and are less likely to reach top management is widely attributed to women’s family-related constraints, so we were not surprised that HBS alumni largely held this view. Yet this explanation, was not supported by our evidence. The Life and Leadership survey explored the tradeoffs and decisions that alumni have made in order to manage the demands of work and family. We asked alumni to tell us about the instances when they had left a job or worked reduced hours in order to meet family or personal responsibilities, as well as other accommodations they had made for this reason. Because these are exactly the kinds of decisions that could be called “prioritizing family over work", we were surprised to find that they actually did not explain the lower proportion of alumnae in top management positions. We performed a detailed analysis, controlling for other potential influences like the age and race of alumni, the industries they worked in, and the size of their organizations. Even with all these other factors being equal, it simply was not the case that accommodations, including career leaves, explained the top management gender gap.. Along these same lines, the survey data also contradicted the popular assumption that a significant proportion of HBS alumnae have left the workforce to parent full time. When we ask various audiences, including alumni themselves, what they think this proportion is, most estimates are in the 35% to 50% range. In fact, 11% of women in the ages 31 to 66 at the time of the survey reported that they were out of the paid workforce to care for children full time. Given these realities, what is driving the leadership gender gap? Our data does not allow us to answer that question directly, but prior research offers several clues. With no evidence that women’s under-representation is driven by their “opting out" of the path to leadership, focusing on actionable barriers can help companies create positive change.

Research has shown that mothers are viewed as less committed to work than fathers and men and women without children. When this assumption is in place, even unconsciously, mothers, and even women without children who are of childbearing age, can be seen as “risky" for companies to invest in. At the same time, we know from our survey data that parenthood is actually not the determining factor in the gender gap, so what gives? Other research has found that when women are seen as high-potential, companies will proactively work with them to provide flexible schedules and other accommodation without penalty, so that they can stay on track and in the leadership pipeline. This should not be surprising, in and of itself. We know that companies go out of their way to provide support for men and women with leadership potential. In our survey, the same proportion of women and men in top management teams had declined to relocate because of family, and while somewhat higher proportions of women had limited their travel or worked reduced hours to accommodate family needs, sizable proportions of men had also done so. The message is clear: companies that want to retain and develop their best employees can and do give leeway.

But here’s the rub: because gender stereotypes shape our models of leadership and influence who is deemed a “rising star" in the first place, the pool of women who are identified as high-potential and thus worthy of this kind of flexibility and support is smaller than that pool of men. It can be harder for current leaders to envision the women in their companies in the C-suite than to see men there—not because they do not want to see a more gender-diverse leadership team but because of subtle and usually unconscious gender biases. When women’s potential is harder to see, fewer of them receive the necessary support to continue to advance. The net effect is fewer women being promoted into senior leadership positions. Many are written off early in their careers, while only a small number are identified as high-potential. Ultimately, the proportion of women in leadership stalls below where companies would like it to be.

To begin to change this pattern, companies must be aware of it and be willing to acknowledge and address it. Simply making these issues discussable is a first step. Organizations can and should educate both men and women about gender bias, not only in their attitudes but also in their internal practices and assumptions which might be inadvertently disadvantaging women. Rather than relying on stereotypical assumptions about women’s unique desire to put family first—in fact, our research revealed that both men and women consider their family lives and relationships the most important features of their lives—organizations can instead look within to uncover the real obstacles to gender diversity at the top.

©2015/HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL

Robin Ely is Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where she also serves as senior associate dean for culture and community and chair of the Gender Initiative.

Colleen Ammerman is assistant director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School.

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