When it comes to career and ambition, there is an assumption that women are less ambitious than men. Research clearly shows this is not the case: women start their careers with just as much ambition as men. Having children does not affect a woman’s desire to lead. Women and their ambition can vary, but this degree in variation is influenced by company, not by family status. In other words, the problem is neither inherent nor related to motherhood; instead, it hinges on the day-to-day experiences of women at work.
It is important to note: ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured - or squashed - by daily interactions and opportunities that women face over time.
Here are some things that companies - and you - can do to help bridge the gender “ambition gap” and create a culture where advancement is supported.
IT STARTS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL. Ambition is directly correlated and influenced by company culture. People look to their leaders to set an example. If you want a culture of psychological safety, then leaders should embody and put it into practice. If work-life integration is an important part of the culture you want to instill, then show that it is okay to leave at 3pm to go pick up the kids from school or daycare.
BE RELENTLESS IN PROMOTING STRUCTURAL CHANGES IN YOUR ORGANIZATION. Things are improving, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. More often than not, the programs and policies in place do not fit in with the modern workplace. Companies should address parental leave policies, flexible work, and job shares (to name a few). Do a “Program and Policy audit” to determine what you have currently, and follow it up with a survey to determine which programs / benefits are being utilized and which are not. Don’t treat benefits and programs as a checklist. You are talking about human capital - invest in your people and they will invest in the company. Guaranteed.
CHECK YOUR OWN BIAS. Creating a culture of belonging and psychological safety starts with all of us. Research shows that hiring managers are more apt to hiring people who think or look like them; instead, work on being aware of your unconscious bias and actively promote diversity within their teams. Keep the communication lines open and hone in on “cognitive diversity,” the idea that everyone brings something unique to the table.
FIND AN ALLY - OR BETTER YET - BE AN ALLY FOR OTHERS. Sometimes we need to find our tribe. Motherhood, with all its complexities, can be isolating. But you don’t have to go at it alone. Find allies - other parents - in your team or organization. Become active in your Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). If you are trying to affect change, like better parental leave, find an ally within the senior or executive leadership level who can advise and sponsor your cause.
In addition, women need to support and champion each other. Here’s the thing: women who ascend up in the corporate ladder have, to their credit, defied the odds to get to where they are. And because there are very few leadership positions that are held by women, those who are coming up feel like competition. This needs to stop. There is room for more women in top management and leadership. So, if you are a woman (or a man) in an executive or leadership position, be an ally to those women who are in their career journey. Be their mentor and coach them.
Ambition does not change with parenthood. If anything, women are ambitious. If the right organizational culture is nurtured, companies can promote the advancement of their female talent and even tap into an even wider pool that can help propel the business forward. The solutions are not costly; in actuality, they are entirely within the company’s control. You just have to take the first step.
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