Women seek impact over profile, study finds

by Shari Graydon

A new study out of Princeton University confirms a trend that Informed Opinions has observed anecdotally: women with the capacity to lead are often more inclined to seek opportunities to do so in areas where they can make the most difference, than in positions or organizations that will increase their profile.

Looking at the involvement of female undergrads in student organizations at the American ivy league institution, researchers found that female student leaders engaging in service organizations, academic clubs and advocacy groups often land in positions where “responsibility is high and visibility is low.” Part of the explanation for that?

Some women said they considered work within larger, older organizations to be “less rewarding”, and would pass on high-profile gigs in favour of high impact ones.

In a dozen workshops conducted over the past year with more than 150 expert women, a similar preference gets expressed, albeit in a different context. Most of the women who participate in Informed Opinions workshops openly share their desire to change some aspect of the world, or the small corner they inhabit. But few have made the connection between raising their own profile and the opportunities that such profile might give them to increase their impact, let alone committed themselves to doing so.

This may reflect women’s pragmatism – wanting their time investment to be as efficacious as possible – and/or it may be influenced by the “ambition and femininity don’t mix” messages still directed our way (consider pop culture reinforcement like The Devil Wears Prada and The Proposal, or the critique leveled against Kim Campbell as being “crushingly ambitious”.)

Either way, it’s holding us back.