Dispelling the Myths of the Gender “Ambition Gap”

Dispelling the Myths of the Gender Ambition Gap

According to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) analysis of survey responses from more than 200,000 employees women and men start their careers with the same amount of ambition. The findings show that when women’s ambition levels vary it is not due to whether they have children or not but is more to do with the culture of the company in which company they work. The results show that women are keen and will strive to advance in organisations with a positive and supportive approach to gender diversity and when the pipeline to management is achievable and enjoyable.

The BCG data shows ambition levels of women with children and those without children track each other over time and when asked to rank the importance of leadership opportunities as a job attribute, the average responses from women with children were within 1 per cent of women without children across all age groups.

BCG suggests that the ‘ambition gap’ can therefore be attributed to the day-to-day experiences women have at work; the interactions, conversations and opportunities which make up the working day, rather than an innate instinct towards motherhood.

The consultancy company also says that ambition can either be nurtured or annihilated by an organisational culture.

BCG suggests four simple steps organisations can take to demolish the gender based ambition gap:

Build a gender-diverse leadership team with the right role models

When hiring, CEO’s need to demand gender-balanced lists of candidates for all open positions and make objective hiring decisions based on quantifiable data. If companies are using an executive recruiter who cannot provide a list of strong candidates that shows good balance by gender, it is time to find a new executive recruiter.  Companies also need to avoid gender-specific terms like “IT wizards” in job postings.

Regarding promotions, leaders should review the company’s evaluation system to identify and eliminate any gender-based bias. In addition, companies should train managers in how to develop employees and deliver feedback based on their strengths.

The right role models are crucial. Even the most promising executives should not reach the leadership team if they do not buy into the company’s diversity agenda. (At most organisations, everyone knows who these executives are. They undermine even the most enlightened company’s approach to gender diversity.)

In addition, CEO’s should take some risks in hiring. Some of the best leaders may have followed a meandering path to their current position. The road to the C-suite is not a single track, and leaders do not come in only one flavour.

Change the informal context

A person’s experience at work is made up of countless small interactions, and the leadership environment at many companies can feel like a familiar set of masculine tropes: backslapping, high fives (both figurative and literal), and trips to the pub after hours.

CEO’s should ask their senior managers and executive team members about the occasions when they are having the most fun at work—when they feel most connected with their senior colleagues and are most relaxed in their company. Are there women present on these occasions? If not, why not? If so, are the women also enjoying themselves?

Make and relentlessly promote structural changes such as flexible work

Data from one of our surveys tells us that both men and women view flexible work as the most effective way to improve diversity. The data also shows that the main reason both men and women may be reluctant to advance at their company—cited by nearly 60 per cent of both genders—is the challenge of meeting increased job responsibilities while managing outside commitments.

Companies should address this concern head-on by offering parental leave, part-time work, job pauses, job-shares, and annual leave buybacks for everyone, including senior leaders. In addition, they need to actively encourage men to take advantage of these policies. CEO’s should work to eliminate any stigma for and instead celebrate those who take advantage of these programs.

For example, companies can congratulate the father who spends Fridays with his children, instead of the one who logs the most air miles. Such small, everyday moments can clarify the company’s priorities and reinforce the culture.

Track progress and involve everybody

CEO’s and HR leaders should track their progress toward gender diversity and create incentives for everyone to participate in the journey. Research shows that diversity efforts are most effective when linked to outcomes. For example, executives’ compensation could be pegged to the level of gender diversity in their business.

Companies should consider promoting managers who have strong female candidates in their succession pipeline (or they should at least challenge those who don’t).

Transparency is key companies should communicate their progress, celebrate both effort and outcomes, and identify where they still have work to do.

Many companies are taking steps to create more balanced leadership teams. For example, they run women-only training sessions, send women on leadership courses, and hire senior women to serve as role models. These are admirable steps, but they are ultimately not enough. Likewise, telling women simply to try harder at a game in which the rules are stacked against them may create some fantastic, isolated successes—but it may not lead to a meaningful breakthrough.

Women are ambitious, but they are also rational. If leadership looks attractive and possible, they want to be leaders. Otherwise, they may make the reasonable decision to opt out. For CEO’s, this presents a great opportunity. By creating the right organisational culture, companies can promote the ambition of both men and women and tap into a wider pool of talent to create the kind of leadership team needed for success in the future.

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