Rethinking Gender Equality in the Workplace

"Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation." – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on how to catalyze gender equality reform

In March, we celebrate the contributions women have made to culture, society, and science. It’s inspiring to see women are increasingly visible in leadership roles — less than 100 years ago, it wasn't possible for a woman to vote, let alone run for president of the United States.

Despite the great strides we've made in women’s rights, there are many places where women still have limited options. In fact, the World Economic Forum recently reported that the global gender gap won’t close entirely until 2133. There’s also the danger that young people feel the battles of feminism have already been won, and it doesn’t help that gender arguments have become increasingly frivolous.

So, how can we accelerate gender parity across the world (and in our own community)? More specifically, how can we increase gender equality in the workplace?

A study published in Scientific American notes that although people think that women and men have equivalent leadership capabilities, women are still under-represented in high-level positions like corporate CEOs, professors, and politicians. Researchers identified two reasons for this imbalance: 1) women face skepticism about their work abilities, and 2) cultural norms impact people’s views about what roles women want in the workplace. For example, men more often choose dangerous or competitive work environments, and often engage in aggressive or dominant behaviors that lead to professional advancement. The article offers an interesting, and somewhat controversial, explanation for this disparity: men and women have fundamentally different reasons for why they seek a high-level position.

The authors collected data from more than 4,000 people. Their results showed that “women view high-level positions as equally attainable as men do, but less desirable.” The reasoning for this finding was twofold: women have a more diverse set of life goals, and they think promotions might lead to negative consequences like more stress and less time for relationships.

The two authors — both women, incidentally — found the same results in executive-level classes they teach and across a wide range of industries. They underscore the point that men and women have different “preferences” by presenting a comparison that asked people to rate their current, ideal, and highest job they were capable of attaining. The authors found no differences among men and women for their current and highest attainable position, but women stated that their ideal position was lower.

The authors speculate that this finding is related to people’s life goals. When they asked men and women to list their life goals, women listed more goals and fewer of them were related to prestige or power in the workplace. The authors conclude: “By definition, if you have more goals, you can’t allocate as much time and attention to any one of them (on average), including professional advancement.

Although this study provides a valuable new wrinkle to gender studies, it raises an interesting question: is it helpful or counterproductive to the fight for gender equality for women to have more goals than men?

I think the answer lies in the type of goals that women set for themselves. If the authors had found that women have a greater number of personal goals, like the desire to take on more hobbies, then reducing the number of these goals could help reduce gender inequality. But it’s unlikely that this is the reason for inequality. It’s more likely that women’s goals were focused on addressing important social needs, like balancing family life, relationships, and being compassionate toward others. This type of behavior should be encouraged rather than penalized.

The problem, therefore, is that society places more responsibility on women to balance achievement in a greater number of domains, including personal development, physical attractiveness, family relationships, and in recent generations, equal levels of power and income in the workplace. With all of these expectations, it’s no surprise that women can’t achieve every goal they set — they must pick and choose where to focus their energy.

Justice Ginsburg hit the nail on the head: the solution to increasing gender equality in the workplace doesn’t lie in reducing the number of goals for women. Instead, we should encourage men to seek out more goals, and absorb more responsibility, outside of the workplace. The hope is that a broader set of goals related to family, education, and non-work–related activities will enhance personal well-being and benefit society as well.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: