Study: It’s Not Motherhood That is Hurting Women’s Ambition to Advance

Women’s ambition to advance in their careers is not impacted by motherhood, as many commonly believe. Rather, corporate cultures that fail to embrace diversity are a cause of declining ambition, according to Dispelling the Myths of the Gender “Ambition Gap,” a report issued by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

A BCG study found that women are just as ambitious as men at the start of their careers. Specifically, for employees under the age of 30, there was little distinction between women and men.

Over time, while both women’s and men’s ambition tended to decline, women’s ambition eroded faster than men’s but only at companies that lag on gender diversity.

At organizations where employees report the least progress on gender diversity, the ambition gap between women and men age 30 to 40, often a key period in a career, was 17 percentage points (66% of women sought promotion, compared with 83% of men).

In contrast, there was virtually no ambition gap between women and men in this age group who work at companies where employees feel gender diversity is improving (85% of women sought promotion, compared with 87% of men).

“Both genders are equally ambitious and equally rational. If leadership looks possible, employees want to be leaders. If it doesn’t, they will lower their ambition,” said Matt Krentz, a BCG senior partner and coauthor of the report.

“Ambition is not a fixed trait; it is an attribute that can be nurtured or damaged over time through the daily interactions and opportunities employees experience at work.”

Closing the Ambition Gap

To help foster the right culture, the report outlines four key steps companies can take:

  • Build a gender-diverse leadership team. These teams should have the right role models in place to demonstrate that leadership is a realistic prospect for women as well as men. When hiring for these roles, take steps to combat unconscious bias by asking for blind and gender-balanced lists of candidates.
  • Change the informal context. An employee’s work experience isn’t defined only by the work they do; it is shaped by many small informal interactions with coworkers and leaders during the course of the day. Be mindful not to perpetuate stereotypes with trips to the cigar bar after work, for example.
  • Make structural changes and relentlessly promote them. Sixty percent of women and men alike cite challenges in meeting increased job responsibilities while managing outside commitments as a reason they are reluctant to advance. Offer more flexible work options for everyone at the company, including senior leaders.
  • Track progress and involve everybody. CEOs and HR teams should be transparent, track progress, and link diversity efforts to outcomes. For example, companies might tie executive compensation or manager promotions to the level of gender diversity in their businesses or teams.

“The good news is that addressing this ‘ambition gap’ is entirely within an organization’s control,” said Katie Abouzahr, a health care principal at BCG and coauthor of the report. “By creating the right culture, companies can foster women’s ambition and tap into the wider pool of talent needed to win in the future.”



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