I was encouraged as a young girl to dream big. I remember my father telling me repeatedly that I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I wholeheartedly believed him. I wasn’t quite sure what my specific career goal was back then, but I had ambition and the confidence to move forward. I not only believed his message but I believed in myself. Yes, I could be whatever I wanted to be!
It turns out that I was not alone in this experience. Many young girls are encouraged to have ambitious goals, but by the time they reach adulthood and enter the workforce, the messages change. And unlike the bold statements we may have received from our parents, these new messages are subtle, so subtle perhaps that we don’t know that we’ve internalized them until we suddenly realize one day that our self-confidence and belief in our ability to reach our goals has waned. What happened?
In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Megan Garber, discusses the ambition conundrum women face in our society today in her review of the book, The Double Bind: Women on Ambition. “Ambition, in a culture that rewards achievement but frowns on arrogance, has always been fraught, for people of all genders. But ambition, during a time that goes out of its way to tell little girls they can do anything and women that they really cannot, has recently adopted even sharper contours. It is the gift that keeps refusing to give.”
In 2015, I did research about women and ambition. The results are documented in the white paper, Lost Leaders in the Pipeline, which I co-authored with Lisa Mainiero. The research included 615 professional women ranging from mid-twenties to mid-fifties from a variety of industries. The majority of women surveyed had significant ambition to advance their careers. 74.3% stated they were very/extremely ambitious, with 29% identifying themselves as extremely ambitious.
It was not surprising that most highly ambitious women (73.2%) reported that they were, like myself, raised to believe ambition was important and encouraged to be ambitious. Yet 67.2% admitted that their ambition diminished after the first 5-10 years in the workplace, citing little or no opportunity for advancement and lack of recognition or acknowledgement for performance as the top reasons.
What can high-achieving women do to support their ambition? Of course there are many theories about what it takes for women to advance. Some focus on workplace issues and others highlight women’s limiting beliefs and lack of confidence. Although, it’s often a combination of all factors, one thing I know for sure is that if you don’t work in a company that supports your ambition, you will have an extremely difficult time navigating the obstacles and realizing your goals.
Find the right company. You want to work in an organization that not only offers you opportunities to advance but one where you will be able to showcase your skills. Before you accept a position, make sure the company aligns with your values and is a good cultural fit.
What is the culture of the organization? If it’s conservative and slow to make changes, is this a good fit for you? I’ve had many clients complain that they can’t get anything done in a conservative environment and it tests their patience every day. And if you’re trying to build a track record of achievements, this type of workplace may not be the best fit.
Is the company hierarchical? Are you comfortable with that? Would you like a more collaborative environment? Women tend to be more collaborative and a this type of culture can provide a supportive foundation for your ambition.
What about innovative cultures? Is this an opportunity for you to be more creative? Do you see women in the company holding creative positions?
Where does the company stand on diversity? Do they have company goals for inclusion? Do they have women’s initiatives? What about equal pay? What benefits do they offer especially related to flex time, maternity/parental leave? It’s extremely helpful to get information about whether or not women are marginalized and taken off the leadership track for taking advantage of the benefits offered. If you can’t get specific feedback on this, look at the organization chart and see if women tend to be stuck in middle management.
Look at senior leadership. Are there women represented in top positions? Were they promoted from within? This is clue to assess the potential for you to advance in the company.
Are there formal sponsorship programs and do they include women? If so, what percentage of participants are women?
Does the company have career tracks? Getting on a leadership track early in your career supports your ambition and under the right circumstances holds the company accountable for helping you advance.
Does the company offer training programs, tuition reimbursement, or other resources to gain more technical as well as leadership skills?
You can certainly ask many of these questions during the interview process. If you can speak with women who work there through networking, you may find the answers to many of these questions indirectly. Their feedback can be extremely helpful for you.
In summary, know what you want and know what company culture works for you before you accept any job offer. Finding the right company is the best way to support your ambition.
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