Why Women Opt Out: It's Not Lack Of Ambition

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Woman and men walking

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Bonnie Marcus
Bonnie Marcus
May 19, 2024 at 11:23AM UTC

I worked in corporate America for over 20 years and I personally experienced and witnessed gender bias every day. Some of it was overt, especially in the earlier years, but most of it was so subtle that it caused you to think twice about whether it was your own sensitivity to the issue. An off-color joke, exclusion from important meetings or discussions, sexual advances — these were all commonplace in the companies where I was employed. And now, I coach female clients from male-dominated industries who attest to the continued existence of both overt and subtle discrimination. Dealing with this bias sabotages the ambition of high-achieving women and causes many to question whether or not their career aspirations are worth the effort. Unless companies take the time to understand what women experience in their organizations, any efforts to retain and advance women will fail. It is the obstacles women face in the workplace — not a lack of ambition — that leads to women opt out or lose interest in advancement.

The lack of women rising to leadership positions is not due to a dearth of qualified, ambitious women. Women enter the workforce with optimism and ambition as noted in a 2014 study by Bain and Company. When faced with the daily obstacles to their advancement, however, these women lose their confidence and belief that they can achieve their goals.

My recent research of 615 professional women from ages 22 to 50+ from a variety of industries, demonstrates that women’s ambition is strong. 74% of the respondents stated that they are “extremely/very ambitious.” Those who reported that they were most ambitious stated that workplace challenges and bias were the most significant barriers to their success. In fact, after working five to 10 years, their ambition dwindled.

Although the reasons for diminished ambition for women have been largely attributed to the decision to have children and lack of flexibility, that is only one piece of a complicated puzzle. Women state that lack of opportunity for advancement, lack of acknowledgement and supportive managers, as well as a lack of female role models contributes most to their waning ambitions.

When asked what factors sabotaged their ambitions, one third of the women from my study reported a particular workplace situation. These situations fell into these categories in the order of how often they were mentioned in the survey:

Workplace bias

Women stated they were not valued, paid less than men, sexually harassed, excluded from the boy’s club, blocked from advancement and discriminated against based on age, race and culture.

“My interest in being ambitious at work stopped when I saw how the management would take advantage of women by talking them into taking on more responsibility with the promise of greater pay and change of title, but then would later give the position (and pay) to a male with little to no experience.”

“When the stark reality of the wage gap and gender bias slapped me in the face. After I left a previous job, I was mentoring a male intern whom I trained at that job to try and fill the gap left by my leaving. He asked me to help him negotiate his salary and that’s when I saw that they offered him significantly more in their first offer than they did me. I had more experience than him when I started working there (it was not my first job out of college but it was his).”

“Not a particular situation, but I allowed my male peers to make me believe that I was intimidating when I was really just being as strong as they were.”

Corporate culture

Women reported an environment of favoritism, destructive office politics and a lack of recognition, cutthroat environments and unethical behavior.

“Internal politics and people stepping on top of other people’s heads have probably been the two most prevalent factors. While I am ambitious, I draw the line when being ambitious means either stepping on others or being a shameless self-promoter.”

Difficult managers/colleagues

The respondents stated their managers (and some colleagues) blocked opportunities, felt threatened and were unsupportive.

“A male boss was openly threatened by my influence and power within the organization and actively blocked me from opportunities to advance (he literally told me in a year-end review once that I needed to me ‘more passive’ and ‘lean back’). When I asked what opportunities for a broader variety of work were (not even asking for a promotion), he said ‘none.’ I ended up leaving the organization.”

Lack of opportunity

The women reported that lack of opportunities had a negative impact on their ambitions.

“After working and attending school full-time, I graduated and began to apply for roles within the organization I had worked for longer than a decade. Not only was I not granted one opportunity for advancement, I felt as if I was being consciously blocked from opportunities to advance. That was disheartening and began to wear on my self-esteem. It was hard to move past.”

Advancement undesirable

Getting ahead was cited as less than desirable due to lack of support, being set up to fail and politics.

“Watching other women make it to higher levels due to their skills and determination and then seeing them either fail or be totally miserable due to lack of support and general backbiting from male peers at that level. The reward of reaching that level clearly did not compensate for the misery that came with it for them.”

Unsupportive women

Some women reported that other women were not supportive, and in fact, sabotaged them.

“Yes, office politics driven by other women.”

Motherhood penalties                                                      

Many women felt they were discounted for having children and/or had limited maternity benefits.

“My two bosses held meetings with co-workers telling them to tell me that I shouldn’t have children because it will destroy my career. It was the first time I had heard firsthand of a very real dislike of women being mothers but being a father was fine. I was devastated and scared. What if they were right?”

What is clear from my research is that women have strong desire to achieve their career aspirations and realize their full potential. The gender bias that continues to exist in many companies becomes overwhelming to women over time despite their high level of ambition. In order for organizations to retain the top female talent pool, companies must understand what these women need to stay engaged and feel acknowledged and supported by their managers for their contributions. Organizations need to let go of assumptions about what generic diversity and inclusion programs look like and design initiatives that specifically meet the needs of the women in their workplace. Designing the effective programs must start with asking women about their experiences and what they need to succeed in that environment.

Award winning entrepreneur and Forbes and Business Insider columnist, Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed., assists professional women to successfully position and promote themselves to advance their careers, and consults with companies to retain and support their female talent. Her latest book, The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead (Wiley, 2015), provides a road map for women to navigate the complexities of their workplace to get the promotion they deserve.

With 20+ years of sales and management experience, Bonnie’s extensive business background includes CEO of a ServiceMaster company and VP of Sales at MedicalStaffing Network and two others national companies in the healthcare and software industries. She has held executive positions in startup companies and Fortune 500 companies.

Forbes.com honored Women’s Success Coaching three years in a row as one of the Top 100 Websites for Professional Women stating, “Women’s Success Coaching weighs on the many building blocks of empowering women in business, from assertive communication to self promotion to sensitivity training.” In 2015 and 2016, Global Gurus honored Bonnie as one of the World’s Top 30 Coaches.

In addition to Forbes and Business Insider, Bonnie has been published in Entrepreneur, Women in HR, Daily Worth, Reader’s Digest, Intercontinental Finance, Careers in Government, Diversity MBA, Upstart Business Journal, Washington Business Journal, and CIO Magazine. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc, Crain’s NY Business, Huffington Post, Fast Company, Fortune, Psychology Today, Men’s Health, and more. Bonnie received a BA from Connecticut College and a M.Ed. from New York University.

This article was originally published on Forbes.


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