Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The ambition gap - can it ever close?

The last week has brought inevitable reflection on Margaret Thatcher's role as a role model for ambitious women wanting senior leadership roles.  Some criticised her, pointing to a lack of policy initiatives giving ordinary working women a helping hand to follow her example. Famously she never put herself forward as a feminist - instead she tended to present herself as someone who just wanted to do the job and was prepared for the trade-offs that this brought.  And she said many times that if it hadn't been for Dennis she would never have been able to do her job.  

I was a 'child' of Thatcher - when I was getting married and starting my career she was an apparently unassailable presence.  I don't remember then seeing her as a role model per se - rather thinking she was a one-off, a force of nature.    

One word repeats itself in the obituaries and comments.  Ambition.  Clear and unapologetic.  We might not like to admit it, but the evidence is clear that women find it significantly harder than men to identify with the idea of success. And that leads to an 'ambition gap' which plays a significant role in keeping women out of the top jobs.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, 48% of men describe themselves as ambitious against only 35% of women and further only 15% of women aspire to positions of power as opposed to 27% of men.  I wonder if the use of the word 'power' is part of the issue here -less than a third of men feel comfortable saying they actively want it.  There is a deep-seated belief amongst women which I think is introduced from childhood that actively wanting power is unattractive and unladylike and thus not associated with reward or pleasure.

I think this a tricky issue to address - really we need to find new ways for ambitious women to express their ambition in language with which makes them comfortable and confident. 

When I looked into it, this goes deeper than I thought. I am an avowed follower of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus(if you have somehow never read this - do - one of the most useful books you'll every read).  So I was very interested in some research in the US showing the impact of this hard wiring in the workplace. ‘Women Don’t Ask’, a report by Babcock and Laschever, shows how sex differences in earnings emerge soon after graduation from university because young men routinely negotiate higher starting pay while most young women fail to do so. In surveys, when asked to pick metaphors for the process of negotiating men picked “winning a ball game” or a “wrestling match” while women picked “going to the dentist”. These differences in approach develop over time into a substantive earnings gap – even among people who went to the same universities and have the same qualifications, including MBA graduates.

We see a similar trend here in the UK - research from the ILM shows that women's lack of confidence comes through in their more cautious approach to applying for jobs  or promotions: 20% of men will apply for a role despite only partially meeting its job description, compared to 14% of women. Climbing the career ladder is notoriously competitive, and women’s hesitation in applying for more challenging roles inevitably puts them at a disadvantage.

Rather than pretending this doesn't exist, I hope women can take more time to understand - and accept - why they are wired in a certain way - knowledge is power and once you know why something happens, you can take steps to change the outcome.

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