Why ambition is not currently a great word for women | Women's Agenda

Why ambition is not currently a great word for women

Looks like we need a rethink on the word ambition.

I’m not talking about the ‘ambition is a dirty word for women’ kind of rethink, but rather the kind that sees any definition of the word come with a caveat.

That caveat needs to note some systemic issues with our current system of success – that is the system that’s currently defined by status, position, power and wealth. A system that’s worked great for men — especially those with a wife at home — but not all that great for everyone else. 

Current perceived notions of ‘ambition’ don’t appear to be working for women. Indeed, levels of ambition differ significantly between men and women – just not in the way we may have been previously led to believe.

According to US research recently launched by Bain & Company, women were found to be slightly more ambitious than men when having been in a role for two years or less. 

But cross the two-year mark with the one employer and things change considerably, with aspiration levels for women dropping 60% and confidence by 50%. Men demonstrated just a 10% drop.

The researchers asked two key questions of 1000 men and women in a range of companies: “Do you aspire to top management within a large company?” and “Do you have the confidence you can reach top management?”

At the senior management level, they found men are twice as likely as women to declare they have the confidence to reach the top.

For women, it doesn’t matter if you’re married or have kids, the results are the same. You’re more likely to believe you can reach the top within a large company and have the confidence to reach the top if you’ve been working there for less than two years.

So, something must happen to ambition within those two years.

The researchers Julie Coffman and Bill Neuenfeldt suggest it’s got something to do with continually celebrating those who attend offsite events and networking activities, sacrifice time with their family and friends, and pull all-nighters. When such activities are rewarded, it sends a message to everyone else that that’s what it takes to reach the top. It validates a certain type of behaviour as being necessary for ‘success’ within the organisation.

Yes, there are perceived ideas of what makes a ‘successful employee’ or great aspiring leader in many workplaces, and those ideas could be forcing many women to rethink ambition.

Although we may like the idea of getting to the top, the path to the top in certain organisations may not seem all that appealing. Or particularly necessary, if offsite appearances and golf days are still considered more important than actual productivity.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the researchers lament what’s missing from many company cultures: real discussions on goals, aspirations, careers strategies and job satisfaction. They found that while all ‘insecure overachievers’ require encouragement, men tend to receive such motivation more than women.

Meanwhile, a lack of female role models certainly doesn’t help either.

What’s missing is a real conversation about ambition. Such conversations wouldn’t see the goal as being about merely reaching the position or a certain income level, but rather a more holistic discussion about what individuals want from life both in and out of the office.

Is a certain salary about the ‘success’ of hitting a perceived milestone, or is it about securing more personal freedom?

Is getting a particular promotion about prestige and responsibility, or is it about learning and development?

Is striving to achieve a significant project about impressing the boss, or is it about meeting a significant personal challenge?

Is pulling an all-nighter or working significant hours about being all-in in the company team, or is it about ticking off on particular tasks to obtain more freedom and flexibility later on?

Ambition, as it currently stands, is not a great word for women. We need something bigger and more holistic. Something that can generate a broader discussion about where we really want to get to, and just how we want to get there. 

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