Reframing Ambition

Careers  Culture
07 March, 2024

For many women, ambition is much more than their jobs. It’s time for a rethink.

The problem is, society hasn’t quite caught up with women’s ambitions about ambition. Culturally, women remain in an impossible double bind: if our ambition is career-driven, we’re seen as bossy; if our ambition is family-driven, we’re viewed as unmotivated; if our ambition is to pursue a career and a family, we’re uncommitted to either; Meena Harris, Author and Lawyer.

I was speaking to a friend who was considering chucking her prestigious corporate job to become an entrepreneur. While she was very ambitious and driven, she was tired of playing the games required to climb the corporate ladder. Over time, her definition of ambition had changed to seek fulfillment through both work and motherhood. It was not as if she was shying away from working hard. But she wanted more flexibility, more autonomy, and a more multi-dimensional life.

Many women today are looking beyond the traditional markers of ambition like money, power, and titles.

This week, on International Women’s Day, my message focuses on women’s ambition. What are the invisible barriers that continue to block women from achieving their cherished goals? And how can organizations adapt to better support the aspirations of women?

In their Harvard Business Review article, my ex-colleagues Orit Gadiesh and Julie Coffman share the findings of their Bain & Company study, centered around two questions: “Do you aspire to top management within a large company?” and “Do you have the confidence you can reach top management?”. Among newcomers, both men and women displayed similar levels of ambition. But among women with more than two years on the job, aspiration and confidence declined by 60% and 50% respectively, a trend that continued across more-senior employees. As the authors observe:

Most jarringly, the percentage of male more-senior managers who have confidence that they will reach top jobs is almost twice the percentage of female managers.

This dramatic gap can be attributed to several reasons:

  • In most businesses, the corporate ideal is male. Think of the people who are usually celebrated publicly: someone working late nights at the office or securing deals via savvy networking with industry leaders. These types of wins are often out of reach for women, due to barriers like safety concerns, family responsibilities and boys-club attitudes.
  • Most jobs are built around the typical lifestyles of men, with insufficient flexibility to accommodate parenthood, domestic work and elder care (roles still fulfilled overwhelmingly by women). By and large, women are expected to subordinate their personal ambitions to the needs of their loved ones.
  • Male managers are more willing to give actionable feedback and mentorship to male juniors. Since most leadership roles are still held by men, this leaves women with fewer opportunities for learning, growth and progress.
  • Compared with their male counterparts, women receive less recognition, fewer rewards and less encouragement. Perhaps due to this lukewarm response to their achievements, women also tend to underestimate their own abilities. (In contrast, men generally overestimate their skill levels.)

As the authors explain:

What’s not happening are discussions of goals, career strategies, job satisfaction, overall trajectory and — especially — the simple giving of real encouragement, all in a business culture that rarely celebrates women’s role models. While every insecure overachiever (the definition of strivers) needs encouragement, our research clearly demonstrates that, because of gender differences, men get it more frequently than women.

The ambition paradox

When women are ambitious or compete openly for high-visibility roles at work, they are labelled “selfish”, “egoistic” and “aggressive”. Men, on the other hand, are celebrated for their ambitiousness; in fact, it is considered a natural and desirable trait for them. (On the flipside, unambitious men may be called “weak” for failing to fit this stereotype.)

Confronted with this type of harsh gender-based judgment, many women feel compelled to downsize their ambitions or even abandon them altogether. Those who achieve hard-won success tend to attribute it almost wholly to luck or the support of others — because claiming credit for one’s own achievements is seen as “unwomanly”. As Anna Fels, psychiatrist and Cornell University faculty member, notes:

Giving is the chief activity that defines femininity. This may help explain why professional women are credited with being highly supportive managers and excellent team players. By focusing their energy on these aspects of work life, women can be both businesslike and feminine.

You might think: so what if companies don’t recognize or motivate women enough? Shouldn’t the pursuit of excellence and success be driven from within? The truth is that ambition doesn’t usually bear fruit in a vacuum. The vast majority of people require affirmation to bring out their best work, as Fels explains:

Multiple areas of research have demonstrated that recognition is one of the motivational engines that drives the development of almost any type of skill…. We all want our efforts and accomplishments to be acknowledged.

On the other hand, there is also a widespread idea that women are simply not as ambitious as men. This argument is usually made when women choose to take a temporary step back due to motherhood or other care-giving responsibilities.

The fact is that women’s ambitions often have a different timeline compared to men. Rachel Simmons and Adrienne Kortas, both executive coaches and consultants who help global companies retain female talent, explain this very well in their HBR piece:

When women decelerate to establish work-life balance, they are often perceived as lacking ambition. A switch goes to “off” in the minds of their supervisors, who stop including them in important projects, meetings, and conversations. But those who follow the blueprint are typically swamped by role overload: They face structural disadvantage and burnout, struggling to manage their many professional and personal responsibilities.

Faced with a “now or never” ultimatum, many women simply take themselves out of the running for senior leadership roles. This isn’t just their loss, by the way. It’s also a loss for their companies, who miss out on making the most of their talent and experience.

In a way, women just can’t win. They are either seen as too ambitious — or not ambitious enough!

Ambition 2.0

Ambition itself is a complex idea, perceived in a variety of ways. While the word traditionally conjures notions of rank, power and wealth, it can be understood more broadly as a strong desire to achieve a specific goal.

During the pandemic years, thousands of women (and men!) around the world re-evaluated and redefined their personal ambitions. With millennials and Gen Z leading the way, the idea of a successful career is evolving to encompass things like work-life balance, mental wellbeing, inclusivity, etc. It is becoming much more personal and contextual.

Reframing women’s ambition

What can forward-thinking organizations do to meaningfully support women’s ambition at the workplace? Here are four suggestions to consider.

1. Measure ambition differently.

Many companies offer flexible hours for women to better balance their professional and personal roles. But beyond working hours, we also need to think about flexibility in terms of career growth. Instead of sticking to a move-up-or-out policy, let’s come up with a blueprint that allows for periods of pause and deceleration. Simmons and Kortas provide an excellent example:

At one Fortune 100 company we support, a senior executive remained at a middle-management level for eight years while she was raising her children. Yet the experience she built over this period gave her deep expertise, relationships, and confidence that led to rapid advancement when the time was right. Her acceleration came when she was ready, but her pace did not cost her the opportunity to grow.

2. Expand the corporate ideal.

Rather than defaulting to stereotypes of “ideal employee”, let’s revisit what accomplishment looks like at the workplace. Think beyond hours in the office. In what other ways do employees succeed at the workplace? Are the contributions of talented women getting overlooked because they may not be as visible? Celebrate different kinds of success and provide a bigger platform for women leaders. Let up-and-comers see both women and men as role models.

3. Provide practical support.

As outlined earlier in this article, women’s ambitions don’t receive the same level of encouragement. To remove this barrier, businesses must introduce practical support mechanisms for high-quality feedback, networking opportunities and mentorship — all of which enable high-performing women employees to reach their full potential and advance over the longer term.

4. Reimagine policies for men.

As we broaden our ideas of ambition and success, let’s also consider the evolving responsibilities of men. To create sustainable change, companies will need to introduce policies that allow male employees to participate more actively in family life. For instance, a growing number of employers now have paternity leave, allowing young fathers to provide much-needed support to their partner.

In her HBR piece, Fels shares the following insight:

At many junctures in their lives, both women and men must reevaluate the meaning and value of their ambitions and decide how intensely to pursue them. But when women revisit their calculations, they are more likely than men to conclude that their goals aren’t rewarding enough to justify the effort required to reach them. So they abandon their ambitions.

To ensure this doesn’t happen, organizations need to reframe the way they approach women’s ambition. We must go beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to address the outdated mindset and structural bias that causes women employees to stop short of their potential and give up on their most-cherished aspirations. Creating a healthier workplace culture will enable all talented people to flourish, regardless of gender.


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