How Companies Crush Women’s Ambitions

Businesswoman looking up behind computer monitor
Businesswoman looking up behind computer monitor — Image by © 237/Joerg Steffens/Ocean/Corbis Photo: Joerg Steffens/Corbis

Women are never more ambitious in a workplace than they are when they first get there. But their confidence and desire to get into the C-suite plummet after a few years on the job, and the desire to make it to the top never fully comes back. That’s true for married women and unmarried women, and for women with children and without. And it’s not true for men.

That finding comes from a Bain & Company survey of men and women in the workplace. It found that women and men were equally ambitious when they had fewer than two years on the job. But those ambitions changed dramatically among mid-career employees. Women’s aspiration to make it to the C-suite dropped 60 percent. Their confidence in their ability to reach top management drops in half. And their ambition never recovers as they become senior leaders within their firms. Men, on the other hand, see a much smaller dip in their confidence, and none in their ambition.

The question is why, and the survey has some disquieting answers. Here is part of one woman’s response to the survey questions:

Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralizing, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took.

Another woman responded that “top-level execs are ‘on’ 24/7 and that is not appealing at all.” Another said she did not want “to trade my personal life” for professional success. Many women also reported that their managers were not supportive of their careers. 

The idea is that many women simply do not see themselves as fitting the model of success at their respective firms: They get the message that there’s a type of person who’s successful, and they aren’t it. That’s borne out with tons of data. About 40 percent of new women on the job say “I see myself fitting into the typical stereotypes of success within my company.” Only 25 percent of experienced women say the same.

The study concludes that the workplaces in question are failing to provide women with role models and failing to encourage them, and it has a number of suggestions for improving corporate culture to retain female talent. Providing women with role models and mentors, and rewarding employees with nontraditional work schedules and career trajectories might be a good place to start, they argue.

A lot of companies could go much further than that, though: allowing for more flexible work schedules, encouraging people to actually use those flexible work schedules, and celebrating people who succeed using those flexible work schedules. That would especially help women aiming for the C-suite while dealing with a family at home. This Bain study did not find meaningful differences in the responses of women with kids and without. But many other studies have.

Treat female employees like assets to be invested in, not just employees to be managed, in other words. It just might be better for everyone.

How Companies Crush Women’s Ambitions