Women are still underrepresented in managerial positions, particularly at the top of organisations. It’s not just that women are unable to attain these positions due to discrimination or access to resources. There’s also evidence that suggests these positions may be less attractive to women, as having a senior job tends to increase life satisfaction for men but not for women; this could lead to women exiting such career paths or shying away from them even if well qualified. New research in the Journal of Happiness Studies asks a simple, but important question: why are women managers less happy than their male counterparts?
Hilke Brockmann and her colleagues drew on a large German survey conducted between 1984-2011 involving data from 27,000 non-managers and 3174 managers, a third of whom were women. The survey featured questions about life satisfaction, pay and spare time.
Overall, female managers reported slightly lower life satisfaction than their male counterparts, consistent with past research. They also seemed to find higher pay less rewarding than men. Based on correlations between life satisfaction and pay across male and female managers, on the researchers’ estimate it would take an extra €12,000 of pay to boost a woman’s life satisfaction by the same amount that a man would gain from an extra €5,000 of pay.
This is consistent with previous evidence that suggests men value money particularly highly against other benefits like more free time. Also, highly educated ambitious women are likely to settle down with romantic partners who are in similar careers and – especially if their partner is male – who may earn more than them. This means female managers can be in a situation where further gains in their own income matter less, given their net household worth.
Brockmann and her colleagues expected and found that spare time would have a stronger association with happiness for women managers than men. One reason for this is women tend to have less free time than men, as they often take on greater responsibility for caring duties within a household. As managerial promotions often involve sacrificing free time for money, this deal is going to be less attractive for many women.
In fact, Brockmann’s team found that caring less about money and more about time was at the heart of female managers’ dissatisfaction. Their analysis showed that if it were not for those factors, women would be happier in managerial roles than men, which suggests that the nature of managerial work is not a problem for women, but how it is structured and compensated.
The researchers also looked at the issue of whether female managers are more adversely affected than male managers by the decision to delay having children in pursuit of their careers. They found some evidence to support this, in that between the ages of 35 and 45 (when fertility tends to decline in women) childless female managers felt significantly less satisfied with their lives than female managers who’d had children and male managers who were childless.
Brockmann and her colleagues pointed out that the lack of gender parity at senior management levels isn’t solved by simply bringing women into the boardroom, as this may just consign them to an unhappy stay. A major problem is that in most working cultures leadership positions “require a non-stop lifelong commitment to extra-long working hours and early career path-dependencies” which may repel women who particularly value their free time.
One solution for companies who want to attract more female managers would be to build in more breathing space for their leadership positions – after all, successful entrepreneurs can build businesses on 40 hours a week – and to provide other “temporal rewards” like flexible career paths, especially to help younger women more easily juggle family and work ambitions.