Making Work, Work

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.

Women in Law

Why do we find it so difficult to own our ambition and drive in the same way as men?

The short answer to the idea that ambition is a dirty word for women should be no of course it isn’t, how ridiculous. However, it’s unfortunately not that simple, yet. The way we talk about female ambition compared to male ambition (and indeed, the very fact we identify them as separate things) suggests there are still some prejudices when it comes to women aiming for the top.

There are lingering negative external attitudes towards women who are ambitious; but also internal conflict about ambition. It is often presumed that women do not have the same ambitions as men – or rather, that men are presumed to be ambitious by default, while for women it is an exception. With that and looking at the fight that other women have had to put in to gain their position in male dominated industries, many feel there is still no room for overt ambition displayed by women. We talk amongst ourselves in secret or in innuendo about our drive and passion.

Attitudes amongst women themselves are starting to change. There are interesting divides between younger and older women in ambitions as laid out in a Time Inc. survey in 2015. 48% of women in their 20s said they were “very” or “extremely” ambitious, compared to only 26% of women over 60. Younger women are also less likely to say it’s okay to not be ambitious– almost 60% said it was “not so” acceptable or completely unacceptable to be unambitious, compared to 44% of women in their late 40s and 50s.

So there remains a complex relationship between women and ambition as a result of sexist undertones in our society and its institutions, but does the problem also lie in the way we view patterns of work? The idea that long hours, constant ‘switch on’, endless meetings and trips are apparently the hallmarks of a driven, ambitious individual. Why can’t someone who is looking to work in a different way, or want to find a way to continue to progress their career around other commitments not be deemed ambitious too? Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi caused controversy in 2016 over comments about women not having the vertical ambition of their male counterparts. “Their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy… I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.” Many felt he seemed to be saying that the lack of women at the top wasn’t a problem because they didn’t want to be there, rather than looking at the institutional barriers that prevent them being there.

It is assumed that having different priorities in life reduces one’s level of ambition, rather than considering the ambition that someone has to create a more suitable path to achieve the things they want, across ALL aspects of their life. Even men who are seeking to work in a different way are being branded as ‘not ambitious’ in comparison to those who are never at home.

At Obelisk we think that ambition in this century means working towards your goals and recognising that at different points in your life, your focus of ambition will change according to different priorities. It is time we felt comfortable with that. This approach allows for a ‘portfolio career’ path, which is non-linear and non-traditional and reflects not only the current economic reality that we see around us, but also the fact that organisations these days don’t expect ’employees for life’. As we evolve as a business we see the different ways that men and women of all ages are creating new ways of working that reflect their desire to work and balance their life. That is ambitious!

Anna Fels, writer of Do Women Lack Ambition? in Havard Business Review says we “have confused [ambition] with narcissism, with people who simply want to promote themselves at any cost. But really, what ambition is about is getting appropriate recognition for your skills.” And that should apply whether you work part time, full time, at home, in the office, or whatever way you choose.

So in order for ambition to not be a dirty word for women, we need to change how we define it, and not associate it with success at all costs or workaholic patterns. We need to start defining all of what we want in life – balance, manageable progression, new skills, and new experiences as part and parcel of our ambition. We need to re-examine our own bias and perceptions about ambition when applied to women, and we also need to challenge it when we hear those biases voiced by others. Say it loud and clear: I am an ambitious woman!