The myth of the gender ambition gap

A recent survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 200,000 employees, featuring 141,000 women from 189 countries, found women just as ambitious as men at the outset and companies were at fault for stopping this, not family status or motherhood. The study is the latest in a line of research and discussion that dispels the myth of the gender ambition gap, showing that it is not choices that is keeping women back in the workplace, but existing structures and biases within corporations. That’s not news to us, though the idea that women choose to put their career on the backburner still widely persists. Discussions about why there are less women in CEO positions in the UK than there are CEOs who are men called John (yes really), or why women make up the bulk of part time workers are met with the argument that this is what women want; that they are choosing to lose footing in their career trajectories, rather than being giving little or no option by the structures they have before them. We look at some of the key findings in the study that show that what men and women want isn’t very different, and that employers really do have a responsibility to provide more options to enable everyone to pursue their ambitions.

Men don’t start off more ambitious, but they are ahead from the get go.

The pay gap isn’t something that only kicks in the later stages of a career – there is a disparity between starting pay between men and women in lower and entry level positions too. Ambition levels upon leaving education however were found to be largely equal by the BCG study.

That said, women are asking for higher pay – and are getting it

We are still told that women are not willing to and just aren’t as good at asking for and getting what they want in life, and it becomes a universally accepted truth. But it is not true all over, even though they might not be doing so well as men in certain sectors (but this is down to wider attitudes rather than inability). The more we buy into this myth the more it will remain true, so let’s stop telling women they aren’t predisposed to negotiation and start helping them to get out and do it.

It’s not about having children

Ambitions also do not vary by family status, but by company and industry. The more positively diverse and flexible a company is, the more ambition exists amongst employees – a no-brainer, really. Ambition is something to be nurtured and maintained within the workplace – people are only as ambitious as the opportunities they see as being available to them.

Men want a work-life balance as they get older too

Ambition levels appear to drop off in both men and women as they get older. Indeed, many men who have reached a certain level are satisfied and content in that position, while women in same position are often less so according to study. Ambition seems to only drops off more in women if the company culture is holding them back. In many families care responsibilities are becoming more equally taken, and can only continue to do so in a society that allows both to share responsibility of child and later years care. But more than that, more individuals are seeking better life, rather than race to top at all costs. As we have previously discussed, the way we define ambition is a major cultural factor – we need to further the idea of ambition as wanting a good life and a successful career in a culture that doesn’t expect constant super-human endurance.