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You do ‘lean in’ to your career – so why don’t you feel powerful?

As Sheryl Sandberg's exhortation to working women to "lean in" to their careers continues to seep into the work-life balance lexicon, a new study from the University of Toronto offers an intriguing glimpse into just how complex that advice really is for women in all kinds of fields.

While there are numerous benefits sociologists look at when it comes to work and climbing the ladder of success, researchers found women are falling behind in a new way: When they are promoted to powerful positions, they lag men in feeling autonomous and influential in the workplace.

To find men and women who had what sociologists call "job authority," Scott Schieman and his colleagues used data from a survey of Canadian workers, the Canadian Work, Stress, and Health Study from 2011. The questions they started with included "Do you supervise or manage anyone as part of your job?" "Do you influence or set the rate of pay received by others?" and "Do you have the authority to hire or fire others?"

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Then they looked at other criteria for those workers. They replicated previous work in the area, finding that fewer women achieve a high level of authority in the workplace in the first place – 16 per cent compared with about 24 per cent of men. And they found that those women make less money than their male counterparts.

But it was a third finding that jumped out, especially at a time when Sandberg's message is ubiquitous: Women who do achieve the highest levels of power were less likely than men to feel they have decision-making freedom and influence about what happens on the job, according to Schieman. (The study looked at age as well and found no related patterns.)

The study – The Rewards of Authority in the Workplace: Do Gender and Age Matter? – which appears in the spring issue of the journal Sociological Perspectives, factored out other influences such as work hours, job stress, and marital or parenting status.

It appears something else is going on, that the workplace is still set up to reward men more than women who achieve parallel success. "This corroborates Sandberg's claims about the differential distribution of access to, and the rewards of, higher-status positions," Schieman says in a release.

While the new findings may suggest that the workplace itself can make senior positions less appealing to up-and-coming women, Sandberg has also raised the controversial possibility that at least some of the problem is women's own diminished ambitions.

"My argument is that getting rid of these internal barriers is critical to gaining power. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment," she says in the Time profile.

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