I often notice when coaching women, how reluctant they are to use the word ‘ambitious’. I also work with men from time to time and ‘ambition-shame‘ rarely affects them; generally they are pretty upfront about what they want from life, be it career success or more money.
Well, it seems we women start out just as ambitious as the men but get deflated along the way. Here’s a fascinating article featuring the work of Professor Michelle Ryan, which appeared in The Guardian newspaper towards the end of last year. I could paraphrase it as ‘It’s not you, it’s them‘.
Many women are just as ambitious as men when they begin their careers, but become so wearied by fighting against multiple structural and experiential barriers to their success that this ambition often wanes.
This is one of the findings made by Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, in her research into why women are under-represented in leadership roles and report lower ambition.
Ryan returned to Australia to deliver a lecture at the Australian National University in Canberra, where she graduated with a PhD in psychology in 2004.
“If you do surveys and about the proportion of men and women aiming for the top, you can see differences in their levels of ambition,” Ryan told Guardian Australia.
“But they don’t start off that way. We’ve done the surveys for numerous professions, and whether it’s police officers, surgical trainees, or women in science, men and women have absolutely equal levels of ambition and want to make it to top in equal numbers.
“But while men’s ambition increases over time, women’s decreases. My research suggests that this drop is not associated with wanting to have kids, or to stay home and look after them. It’s related to not having support, mentors or role models to make it to the top, and the subtle biases against women that lead to their choices.”
Ryan said she considered mentors to women as being senior people in the workplace who actively sponsored, endorsed and promoted them, while role models were people in leadership positions women looked up to, but who they did not necessarily know personally.
Without both kinds of support, it was an uphill battle for women seeking promotion, Ryan said.
“We often put the ownership on women, telling them to lean in and speak up, but if the workplace culture isn’t supportive or appreciative it’s an uphill battle,” Ryan said.
“You can only try this for so long, and it’s these sorts of women who try but aren’t supported who often, over time, become less ambitious, or who leave and start their own businesses, because they get tired of the fight within the organisation.”
Ryan’s previous research, which coined the term for a phenomenon called “the glass cliff”, was named by the New York Times as one of the top 100 ideas that shaped 2008. The research found that women often only broke through the glass ceiling and received a promotion at FTSE 100 companies when the company was on the verge of failing.
“I made this discovery after reading a front page news story in the UK that said women in leadership roles were causing their companies to perform badly, and the article recommended that women probably shouldn’t take on leadership positions,” she said.
“So we looked at the basic data, and showed that women were often appointed to boards after a company performed badly, was failing, or suffered a major drop in share price. If you want to be less charitable, you can say this was because women were being made scapegoats.”
More recently, stories in the media were misleading people into believing women who were not ambitious had made a choice not to be, Ryan said. Her research had found the truth was more complicated.
“It’s more about the context in which those choices are being made,” Ryan said. “It’s great to say women are agentic beings, but to say it’s all a free choice not constrained by context and certain conditions placed on them is not always correct.”
She advised ambitious women to find a sponsor in the workplace who supported their career. Often this was a senior man, because there were not enough women in senior roles. Senior men with daughters of an age where they were entering the workforce tended to be more supportive of women’s careers, she said.
“The other bit of advice is to be resilient in the face of the uphill battle, to be aware of the unconscious biases and the lack of support, and not internalise it by saying ‘it’s because I’m not good enough’,” Ryan said.
Half the battle is being aware of what is happening to you, and not internalising it as a fault in your personality. Once we become aware we can take back some control over our futures, and our careers. If you’d like to spend a day with me, thinking about your career and the impact of working in what is still a predominantly male environment, check this out. I’m in London in May and I’d love to see you!
Speak Up, for professional women, London May 9th 2016.
Posted on February 18th, 2016 by Jane