Personality data reveals slight differences between men and women, but not enough to explain the gender gap, especially at the C-suite.

Nearly a decade after Sheryl Sandberg’s famous TED talk on the lack of women in leadership positions, we continue to see more men than women make it to top. According to a 2018 McKinsey&Company report, only

  • 38% of managers are women
  • 29% of VPs are women
  • 22% of executives are women

At the executive table, men still outnumber women 8:2.

The easy explanation is to say that women drop out of the workforce to be caretakers at home. While this may have been the case in past generations, it simply isn’t true today. The McKinsey&Company report shows that only 2% of women plan to leave to their careers to focus on family.

Ambition isn’t the problem either, as 68% of women want to be promoted to the next level. Not only that, women negotiate for promotions just as often as men, according to McKinsey&Company.

So, if women want to be promoted, they’re negotiating for promotions, and they’re not leaving their careers to focus on family, what’s holding us back?

Are there differences in personality that can explain why more men are promoted to executive positions than women?

First, let’s look at why people get promoted. Being assertive, competitive, and taking risks are often cited as factors that increase one’s chances of getting promoted. These are also behaviors that stereotypically male. On the flip side, being accommodating, reserved, and striving for perfection – behaviors that could potentially derail an opportunity for promotion – are stereotypically female.

When we look at innate styles, do these stereotypes hold true? Are men really more likely to possess career-making personality traits?

To understand exactly where the differences in our styles lie, we reviewed assessment data from 850,000 men and women in senior level roles across industries, focusing on 6 personality traits that strongly influence promotability:

  1. Accommodation.
  2. Assertiveness.
  3. Cautious Thinking, which can influence our willingness to take risks.
  4. Competitiveness.
  5. Detail Interest, which can influence perfectionism.
  6. Social Restraint/Reserved.

While results do show some truth in gender stereotypes, differences on key personality traits are not significant enough to keep women from climbing the ranks.

It’s not surprising to see that women score higher on traits that are stereotypically female, like accommodation and social restraint. It’s also not surprising to see that men score higher on traits that are stereotypically male, like assertiveness and competitiveness. On cautious thinking (a proxy for risk taking) and detail interest (a proxy for perfectionism), however, men and women score exactly the same.

What are the implications of these trait scores? For starters, being higher on accommodation could lead women to say yes to more non-promotable tasks, such as organizing events or volunteering for internal committees. And, being lower on assertiveness could keep women from offering their ideas or asking for what they want. But, with the exception of competitiveness, these are differences of less than 10% – while the gap between men and women at the C-level is more than 5X that.

You could say socialization is to blame. Modern culture, progressive as it may be, is still steeped in a legacy of traditionally-defined gender roles. Men are ‘allowed,’ and often encouraged, to be assertive and competitive. Meanwhile, women are expected to be moderators, peacemakers, and and put others’ needs first. Those are the messages we receive through childhood, adolescence, and into our careers.

And yet – in spite of all this socialization – the personality differences between men and women are surprisingly small.

To truly level the playing field, we as women can empower ourselves in areas where men have an edge. Yes, men and women are socialized differently, and, in general, we exhibit traits such as assertiveness and competitiveness differently. But that’s not to say we don’t have it in us. These are gaps we can close, and small gaps at that.

The road to the C-suite for women (and for men!) starts with self-awareness. Then the work of developing healthy leadership habits can begin.

The bottom line is this:

If there’s no innate disadvantage, and we perform just as well as men once promoted, then all we have to overcome is tradition. And we’re making progress every day. So keep pushing forward!

Olivia Salas

Written by Olivia Salas, M.A.
Vice President of Solution Delivery, Outmatch