Sheryl Sandberg may be telling women to lean in. But according to new research from Sandberg's own organization and the consulting firm McKinsey, plenty of women—and men—don't really want to, at least when it comes to the very top executive jobs.
Just 60 percent of senior female managers said they wanted a top executive job, compared with 72 percent of men. Among entry-level employees, the gap was narrower (albeit the interest was also lower), with just 39 percent of women and 47 percent of men saying they want the top slot.
The gap can't all be explained by women's family obligations or motherhood. While women with children tended to cite balancing work and family when explaining why they didn't want to join the C suite, nearly the same percentage of men (62 percent, vs. 65 percent of women) said it was their top reason as well.
Meanwhile, women without children more often cited the stress and pressure that come with holding such powerful jobs than they did the work-family challenges that could result from them. "This is not a women’s issue," said Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn, which partnered with McKinsey on the research. "It’s a workforce issue."
Perhaps most interesting was the finding that mothers were actually 15 percent more likely than women without children to say they wanted the top job.
"It dispels the idea that being a parent diminishes your ambition levels," said Lareina Yee, a partner in McKinsey's San Francisco office. As previous studies have found, the new report also showed that black, Hispanic and Asian women were, on average, 43 percent more interested in becoming a top executive than white women were and 16 percent more interested than white men were.
The study also reveals some uncomfortable truths for corporate leaders who think benefits such as handing out generous maternity leaves will get more women to the top. While some 65 percent of companies in the survey offered extended maternity leave, just 4 percent of their female employees had used it. More than 90 percent of both women and men said they thought taking long family leaves would hurt their careers.
While it's interesting to compare ambition levels across different subsets of workers, it's worth keeping sight of the overall finding that aspirations for top leadership roles among all workers—but particularly women—are still relatively low. A separate academic paper published last week showed a similar reticence among women for the most high-level jobs. Researchers at Harvard Business School found, among nine different studies, that women listed fewer goals related to achieving power at work, saw more tough trade-offs with high-level jobs, and—though they were confident they could attain top positions—saw them as less desirable.