Follow your passion, and you’ll never work a day in your life, or so the saying goes. But this ethos may be putting women leaders at a disadvantage.
A 2023 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that cultures where “follow your passion” is common career advice have greater gender disparities in academia and the workplace because women are more inclined to choose roles that align with traditionally feminine characteristics and interests. That includes working with people, being the primary caregiver, and other roles rooted in cooperation and nurturing. In contrast, occupational gender disparities were not as pronounced in cultures where income, job security and other practical considerations were more influential decision-making factors.
With roots in Western individualism, the belief that acting on our distinct preferences is desirable and even productive permeates corporate cultures. Job applicants who convey a passion for their work are perceived as more competent, hirable, and successful, according to the study.
But all this begs a troubling question: If passion is so fruitful and fulfilling, then why are women who follow their bliss all the way to the top still passed over for prestigious (and lucrative) positions?
While we often think of our passions as innate, the reality is we’ve all been shaped by our environment. Our career path “really depends on what we’ve been exposed to, and what other people see as an appropriate passion for us,” explains Dr. Mary C. Murphy, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University.
Our passions tend to be determined early on, and it’s natural to be enthusiastic about the activities we’re good at or encouraged to pursue. Yet when women don’t receive positive reinforcement for their passions, they’re put in a bind, especially when drawn to typically male pursuits.
“Even in high school, we see students falling along the lines of these gendered societal expectations as to what the passion should be for a man or a woman,” says Murphy
And that disparity translates to the C-Suite. Men are more likely to say they’re passionate about being leaders, whereas women will say they’re passionate “about nurturing people’s interests and helping people fulfill their goals,” adds Murphy.
Ironically, the mandate to follow a singular passion can stifle individual growth. Alex Lazarus, an executive coach and the founder of Lazarus & Maverick Consulting, credits the combination of following her ambitions and her Eastern European upbringing with much of her success. Rather than selecting roles based on interest alone, she looked for jobs where she could make meaningful contributions, feel a sense of pride, and make an impact.“My career and life is steeped in realism and learning and growth, and then being open-minded to shifts,” says Lazarus, who worked at large corporations like Walt Disney and Virgin before pivoting to C-Suite consulting.
Lazarus suggests moving away from a “purist” view of passion and reframing the singular concept as “a bouquet of roles, opportunities and skills” that may grow and bloom at different periods of our life. “We think of identity as stable, but in fact there’s always part of us that’s emergent.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a burning desire or enthusiasm for a subject or an activity. The problem in a passion-driven framework is that it can discourage women from cultivating new facets of ourselves or pursuing unexplored avenues. “We’ve been conditioned to think that if we have to try hard, we don’t have ‘innate’ ability or natural talent in an area. If we think that you’re supposed to just know how to do [something], it can really push women away from those sparks of curiosity that can open up their world,” says Murphy.
For example, in many corporate cultures, talent, intelligence and yes, passion, are viewed as predetermined traits, explains Murphy, who explores this idea in her forthcoming book Cultures of Growth: How the New Science of Mindset Can Transform Individuals, Teams, and Organizations. This misconception can lead to a “fixed” mindset that privileges competition above curiosity.
In many tech companies, for instance, there’s a fixed “culture of genius.” After all, the narrative goes, who needs decisions driven by experts or data when there’s a passionate genius at the helm? In these environments, a leader’s passion gives them carte blanche, and their power may go unchecked and their decisions unquestioned, Murphy adds.
And more often than not, it’s male entrepreneurs and leaders whose poor decisions are excused as eccentric or bold.
“We have these gendered views that a man’s passion is to be respected and valued, while women who have these passions are seen as more emotional and less considered,” Murphy says. “Would a woman’s passion be seen as a legitimate rudder by which to direct the boat?”
The answer: a woman leader would likely be thrown off the glass cliff.
Murphy contrasts the “fixed” mindset with the more expansive “growth” mindset, which purports that talent, intelligence, and passion can be nurtured through dedication and resilience. “The culture of growth allows us to be in learning mode rather than knowing it all.”
People tend to make better decisions from their growth mindset rather than their fixed mindset, in part because they’re seeking out different opinions.
“We actually know that the way to the biggest original breakthroughs usually come from pulling disparate information. A little over here, a little there from different disciplines, and pulling them together in a novel and unique way,” Murphy says. “If we think about passion as just pursuing one question in a very narrow way, we’re never going to have those big breakthroughs. We’re never going to allow ourselves to become curious to develop a breath of knowledge. That holds us back, too.”
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