Own your ambitions, know your potential, seek mentors, and other advice for navigating around glass ceilings and cliffs
by Jan Hills
Photo by Simon Dawson/Reuters
Edited by Sally Davies
For women, along with other marginalised groups, career success involves confronting serious dilemmas. Do you comply with what’s expected, or do you try to break the mould? Do you hide your ambition, or can you be honest about it? Should you be ‘yourself’, or is it better to adopt a more stereotypically ‘masculine’ style of leadership, at the cost of being disliked? Managing these tensions can leave us either frustrated in our careers, or socially penalised for our behaviour. Women in the workplace face what the feminist scholar Marilyn Frye has called ‘the double bind’, in which none of the limited options available seems to be desirable.
Much of the writing about gender in the workplace subtly – and sometimes not so subtly – blames women. It implies that women need to change in order to be successful in a (male) world. This is unjust and simplistic, and the truth is that many of us are agitating to overhaul this system. I run a consultancy that specialises in using insights from social psychology and other human sciences to assist organisations to be more inclusive, as well as to help leaders who are women achieve their potential. The practical reality is that we won’t be able to change the workplace if we don’t know how to navigate it.
The evidence suggests that, as a woman, motivation, energy and expertise will not be enough to get you where you want to go. It’s also important to be clear-eyed about your career goals, and to discern how your own socialisation as well as the widespread myths about female competence might be working against you. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and tooling-up is sensible. What’s more, we know from the research that men who don’t conform to the stereotype of an authoritative leader will be judged negatively too – so, men, you might also find some helpful inspiration in what follows.
The first hurdle to overcome concerns your own relationship to ambition. Women, like men, experience reward and pleasure from working hard and achieving goals. We’re not working long hours and sacrificing time away from our families just to be ‘nice’. But are women ambitious? In her book Necessary Dreams (2004), the psychiatrist Anna Fels notes that the American women she interviewed largely disliked describing themselves as ambitious now. However, in talking about their ambitions for adulthood, they said they wanted to be known for mastery of a skill, and to be recognised for it. Fels argues that women are brought up to avoid recognition and visibility in favour of traditional feminine values; in her view, this contributes to why they often choose to nurture and defer to, rather than compete with, men.
Mastery demands motivation, support and appreciation over time. These are social experiences that rely on other people – they are what help us maintain focus and encourage us to overcome obstacles. So if women’s achievements are consistently undervalued by the people around them, we risk failing to find the stamina to push on and achieve our potential. It’s simply not possible for people to achieve their dreams as loners. An influential study led by the Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, for example, followed a group of 89 Americans from birth to childhood (although some dropped out over the course of the study). He concluded that recognition is a key component of mastery, and it might be impossible to master a skill without recognition.
A recent study found that men and women compete differently. Feminine norms mean that women are socialised to have more negative beliefs about competition. These norms socialise women to be modest, amenable and supportive. Numerous studies, including a recent one published by the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, find that women tend to experience significant organisational discrimination during their late 20s and early 30s – precisely when they’re starting to compete seriously with men and jumping into roles that have significant influence over others. It’s also the age when women most frequently decide to partner off and have children. For professional women in relationships with men, this life stage also entails a disproportionate burden of childcare and housework, the so-called ‘second shift’. This isn’t just a generational problem: a recent survey from Gallup found that among opposite-sex couples, those aged 18 to 34 were no more likely than older couples to divide most household chores equitably.
Faced with these pressures, women sometimes feel like they have to choose between holding on to their ambitions or downsizing them. Stereotypes present another obstacle, as they socialise women to act in line with cultural norms and are the basis upon which our behaviour is judged by others. One way of examining the impact of stereotyping is the Bem Sex-Role Inventory (BSRI), developed at Stanford University by the late psychologist Sandra Bem. The 20 characteristics associated with femininity – such as being loyal, compassionate, sensitive to the needs of others – are about support and relationships. By contrast, the BSRI characteristics linked to masculinity are largely self-focused, such as being individualistic, dominant, ambitious, analytical and willing to take risks.
It won’t have escaped your notice that masculine qualities are those typically associated with leadership in most western organisations. Women who display these traits are judged as unfeminine; cold, a ball-breaker, a bitch. This fact might be why many women don’t like to take personal credit for their success, and why we hear so many women attributing their success not to mastery and recognition, but to luck.
‘I’m not really ambitious – I just like to do a good job.’
‘I hate to promote myself. My work should stand for itself.’
‘It’s not about me; it’s about teamwork.’
These are examples of how women executives have described their ambitions to me. What’s significant is that these responses come from very successful women, who might be expected to have acquired sufficient power, self-confidence or allies, or a thick-enough skin, to own their ambition. However, their response could be a rational one: they understand that to exhibit male-type ambition invites hostility.
In scenes reminiscent of The Apprentice, a study by Doré Butler and Florence Geis showed that when men and women took turns assuming leader roles during a problem-solving task, the women consistently received more negative facial reactions than positive ones. A bit of eye-rolling doesn’t sound too serious. But when faced with it every day, it serves to depress women’s judgments of the value of their contributions and their prospects of doing well.
None of this means that women are less hungry for advancement. A survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2017 of around 200,000 employees, including more than 141,000 women from 189 countries, found that women are just as ambitious as men at the outset of their careers. When companies foster a positive culture that actively works to promote gender diversity, women, including those with children, remain eager to progress. The findings suggest that their ambitions are constrained not by family status or motherhood, but by the culture and policies of their organisations. As the authors put it: ‘Ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured – or damaged – by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time.’
BCG also found that among employees aged under 30 there was little difference in ambition between men and women. The strength of ambition waned in both sexes over time, but women’s ambition eroded significantly faster than men’s at organisations with a poor record of gender diversity. However, at organisations rated as progressive, there was almost no ambition gap between women and men aged 30 to 40. Matt Krentz, a co-author of the report, argued this suggests ambition is not a fixed trait: ‘It is an attribute that can be nurtured or damaged over time through the daily interactions and opportunities employees experience at work.’
Focus on work that demonstrably adds value. Research by Adam Grant, Reb Rebele and Rob Cross in the Harvard Business Review found that 35 per cent of collaborative work is done by 3-5 per cent of employees, who unsurprisingly are likely to become overloaded and experience burnout. Who are these ‘super collaborators’? Yes, they’re women. Other research showed that women are also less likely than their male peers to get credit for helping their colleagues. Women frequently do work that smooths the wheels of the business – the ‘office housework’ – but it’s not rewarded. So help your colleagues, but don’t let yourself be walked all over, and be sure to get recognition for what you’re doing.
Broaden your experience, but choose your moves carefully. When presented with an opportunity, ask yourself who really benefits. Newspapers delight in writing about the ‘glass cliff’, where women are appointed to leadership roles when businesses are in difficulty and then blamed when they fail to turn them around. The evidence is unclear as to whether this is a real phenomenon, rather than the fate of a few very senior women – but in my line of work, I’ve certainly seen evidence of women taking high-risk positions at the behest of mentors and sponsors. Even when women manage to make a success of the role, it can come at a high personal cost, and they often find themselves off track in their career. So when you’re offered a new position, make sure you assess the career benefits alongside the risks and opportunities; create a network of supporters as part of the due diligence you do for the role, and define what success looks like with your boss before you accept.
Talk about your potential. It’s worth remembering that proven success isn’t the only criteria that organisations use to evaluate people. Being able to describe what you do in terms of your capacity to grow gets managers excited. But research conducted at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, in which subjects were told to read descriptions of candidates and asked if they would hire them, pointed to a bias for appointing men based on their potential – while women were still expected to have experience. So try to demonstrate both: have the numbers and examples that show your achievements to date, but be sure to have conviction and belief in where you’re going to go.
Raise your own profile. Many women reject self-promotion as inauthentic, but visibility is key to advancement. You can’t get ahead without being seen and recognised by others. Women are often socialised to be modest and to share credit with their team, which in turn makes it harder for them to raise their own profile. The problem is compounded by the fact that it can be harder for women to attend events outside of work, because of unequal demands at home. A study at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford found that all of these factors had an impact on women’s ability to get ahead. The trick is to come up with solutions that are true to your values but also increase your profile. Can you create a newsletter that highlights the role you and your team are playing? Can you negotiate with your partner to attend a number of outside-work events? Can you tap someone to do your boasting for you? At least make sure you have a good bio on your organisation’s website, an up-to-date LinkedIn and a professional profile on relevant sites.
Find the right role models, mentors and managers. Being able to see and identify with someone ‘like me’ higher up within the organisation, or performing an aspired-to role, is crucial for maintaining motivation. But it can be off-putting if the role models are too different or too senior. Look to the women who are about two levels above you, and see if they’re willing to have a chat. Ask them to talk candidly about the challenges they’ve faced and the tactics they used, including how they managed career and family. (Many men find these sessions helpful too: those committed to a 50/50 split of their own family responsibilities reported to us that they find such sessions enlightening.) At the same time, make sure you’re working for someone who supports your goals. If your manager isn’t giving you recognition, projects that help you to grow and good advice on your future, you need a change.
Don’t be too ‘nice’; use approachability wisely. It’s particularly important for women to consider the trade-offs between warmth and competence. Influential research by the psychologist Susan Fiske and others has proposed that humans sort social groups according to two key metrics: warmth (how friendly, trustworthy) and competence (how capable, effective). This is a major challenge for professional women, what the American author Joan Williams describes as ‘the tightrope’: ‘women must walk a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be effective and too masculine to be likeable’. To walk this line, remember that warmth is the basis of trust and can be a means of developing strong relationships. It can pay to show warmth first, to connect in early interactions, and then show competence as the relationship develops.
The 2020 pandemic has made the unequal gender distribution of domestic labour particularly stark. In the face of homeschooling, additional childcare, maintaining the supply of food and essentials, and finding ways to care for vulnerable loved ones, many professional women have struggled to maintain their career while taking on additional responsibilities. One client said to me:
I’ve now mastered the skill of talking sensibly on a call whilst dressing my five-year-old’s dolls. My husband has taken over the spare room and retreats there every morning and doesn’t appear until evening. We both have full-time jobs. I now have two full-time jobs!
One way to address and prevent such imbalances in future is to model a different style of leadership. Research conducted independently by two consultancies, Zenger Folkman and MRG, looked at how male and female leaders were rated by their boss, peers and team. Their analysis suggested that women were more effective than men on the majority of the leadership competencies. They also prioritised different leadership skills, including those that supported transparency and connection (such as communication), and those that entailed accountability and attaining results (such as achieving goals, being organised and attending to details). Women were most effective when they adopted a mix of collaborative, goal-oriented leadership with a strong relationship focus – that is, when they crafted their own style of leadership rather than aping traditional masculine models. This is where being a seasoned female leader comes in: you might not have had a helping hand yourself, but perhaps you can be there for others, and lift them up along with you.
We need the right role models for different stages of our careers. If role models are too senior (‘We’ve got Sheryl Sandberg coming to speak!’), women can devalue their own worth by comparison. A Harvard study by the researchers Crystal Hoyt and Stefanie Simon examined the impact of female role models on women’s self-perceptions and leadership aspirations. Being exposed to very senior female role models had a counterintuitively negative effect on younger women: they became less confident and less motivated. They identified more closely with role models who weren’t so remote, considering their success to be attainable.
Younger women might be inspired, but they can’t always identify with a woman at the top of the organisation. The gap is simply too great. Role models should be close enough to our own experience that we can identify the steps to get to where they are: how to get there from here. Or we need to have sufficient contact with them so that we deeply understand them, rather than just looking at them from afar.
How do you make yourself a role model and help younger women coming up? Make yourself visible, articulate your approach, be ‘human’ and accessible, and share insights from both your successes and your failures.