Women Have Ambition – Don’t Wear It Out!

In what will come as no surprise for the many women aspiring to leadership or partnership in the organisations for which they work, Professor Michelle Ryan, a professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, has found that battling structural barriers amongst other things just leaves women tiring of the battle.

Professor Ryan has researched why women are under-represented in leadership roles and report to have lower ambition.

She found that at the beginning of their careers, ambition for men and women were largely the same – but that over time, and across multiple professions, the level of ambition for women decreases.

She states one of the reasons, is that women become simply tired of fighting against multiple barriers – including structural and experiential, that their ambition wanes. I would add fighting against unconscious bias to this list.

Of most interest from her research, it is not the desire to have children, or the need to stay home and care for them or the desire for work/life balance that causes this drop in ambition. It is, she says, the simple fact that they lack mentors and role models to enable them to make it to the top.

If the only role models you see are males, it is hard to see yourself in that position. Combined with a lack of mentors and champions, it is much more difficult for women to make it to the top, which often leads them to making the choices they do about their careers, contributing to the unconscious bias – and making it not so unconscious.

As in, “see, I knew she would just leave and have babies”.

Ms Ryan’s advice is to find a sponsor, whether that be male or female, and 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”.

Ms Ryan coined the phrase ‘the glass cliff’ which refers to the fact that many women are appointed to leadership roles just before a business fails.

You can read more of Ms Ryan’s work in this article, which also references her research on ‘the glass cliff’.

Do you have a mentor or sponsor?