Are Women Lawyers ‘Gagged’? The Myth of the Gender Ambition Gap

It’s one we’ve all heard – that women don’t get as far as men and are paid less because they don’t share the same ambitions as their male counterparts. But the ‘gag’ (gender ambition gap) is a myth.

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 law, but existing structures and biases within practices and departments.

That’s not news to us, but 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.

Unravelling the Gender Ambition Gap

As we look in more detail at some of the key findings in the BCG study, we see that what men and women want isn’t very different. Employers really do have a responsibility to remove the ‘gag’ and provide more flexible working options to enable everyone to pursue their ambitions.

#1 Men don’t start off more ambitious – but they are often ahead from the get-go

The disparity in progression and the gender pay gap isn’t something that only kicks in the later stages of a career – there is a notable difference in 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 – so that dispels the idea that women aren’t pushing as much or don’t share the same hunger for their career and its rewards.

#2 Women are asking for higher pay – and are getting it

That leads us to the second point. 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. We need to remember this is down to wider attitudes rather than inability to negotiate what they want. 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.

#3 It’s not about having children

We also see in the study that ambitions 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. Choosing to have children should therefore not be an inevitable barrier to career progression.

#4 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 a 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.