Women's Ambition Erodes Mid-Career
One of the push-backs I get when I talk about why we don't have more women leaders revolves around the belief that women aren't interested in leadership. I've even hear this from some career women who say bluntly - "I don't need the burden of being a leader in my company!" I can kind of relate. I never thought of myself as a leader or someone particularly ambitious. To me, ambition was for people who wanted power, titles and money and I was never really driven by any of these factors. Instead, I sought new opportunities because of my curiosity about the unknown and I saw change as remedy for boredom. I just assumed that ambition was for certain men and very aggressive women. It turns out that things are a bit more complex than that.
Are Women Naturally Less Ambitious Than Men? It depends on when you ask the question. A study conducted by Bain with 1000 men and women across different companies found something very surprising: women were actually starting their careers more ambitious than men, with 43% vs. 34% of respectively, expecting to reach their companies' top management. Nevertheless, only two years into the job women's ambition declined sharply, as well as their confidence levels, whereas males' ambition and confidence remained about the same. Women at higher roles were somewhat more ambitious but still significantly lagged behind men in both ambition and confidence.
Great Findings. But What Do We Mean By Ambition?
I believe that the Bain study was missing an important point because it was defining ambition in very narrow terms of reaching top management in a certain company. But ambition is not just about status and title for many women (and men as well). Time Magazine's article titled: Why Ambition Isn't Working For Women highlights more insights, including:
Being called 'ambitious' is viewed in negative light when applied to women versus men,
Women define success in terms of both personal and professional accomplishments
Roles that were defined based on masculine standards and stereotypes aren't appealing to many women
Environments which value face time over output are especially detrimental to women's progress and motivation to succeed.
"Companies are failing to see that for women, ambition is about much more than the job. And if laser-focused career ambition at the expense of a rewarding personal life is what it takes to capture the seat in the proverbial corner office–well, many women would rather not sit there."
My Takeaways If we want to inspire more women to reach leadership positions, we must make those positions worth their time and talents. New approaches are necessary. 1. Collect More Data: Simply recruiting more women isn't enough. If we want to develop more women leaders, we have to monitor their progress through the pipeline and support them at different challenging points 2. Create Support Systems: Managers need to be trained and incentivized to develop female employees and when this doesn't happen, companies should have independent talent management mechanisms (leadership programs, coaching/mentoring, employee groups) to ensure that women feel supported in their career. 3. Rethink Motivation: Women may not be as motivated as men by things like money and power. This doesn't mean they should get paid less or not be promoted but it does mean that they need to see the value of the role and how they could contribute positively in order to feel motivated and engaged.This can result in even more loyal and productive employees. 4. Don't Ignore Work - Life Choices: Consulting firms and banks are learning this again and again: less women than men are willing to put up with the 24/7 work demands so unless the culture changes, these companies will continue having a hard time developing and retaining women leaders. Flexibility and results should be emphasized over face time.