How Office Culture Can Crush Women’s Ambitions

Women often report less interest in senior roles. But that may be because of how they're treated, not a lack of motivation.

A woman climbs a set of stairs.
Toru Hanai / Reuters

Researchers have long been looking for solutions to what could be called the ambition gap. That’s the nagging discrepancy which often shows up in polling, where women express less interest in becoming senior executives than their male counterparts. It’s a frustrating dilemma, and one without simple answers.

Encouragingly, companies are starting to investigate the problem and what can be done about it. But at least part of the problem, it seems, is companies themselves.

A new report from the consulting firm Boston Consulting Group investigates why women seem more reticent to compete for top jobs. The researchers looked at survey data of more than 200,000 respondents from a wide range of companies, industries, age groups, and family statuses, with employees in nearly 200 countries. In their data, they found that women’s desires to reach the top ranks at work primarily varies by company, rather than by family status, as commonly thought.

They also found that existing gender diversity had a big impact on how workers felt about pursuing more senior roles. In work environments where both men and women felt that the company was making progress toward gender diversity within its top ranks, all genders were more likely to aspire to a leadership position. For women at a pivotal part of their career, ages 30 to 40, only 66 percent reported wanting a leadership position at companies that weren’t seen as making progress in gender diversity. That’s compared with 85 percent of women who worked at companies they felt were making progress.

That’s a notable finding given the current thinking on the roots of the ambition gap. A popular, and more stereotypical explanation says that while many women start off their careers eager to climb the corporate ranks, that quality diminishes over time because of family obligations or feeling that they’re unfairly held to higher standards. When women reach their 30s, many start having children, and—whether as a direct result or not—some drop out of the workforce altogether.

While some of those factors may come into play, the researchers argue that women are ambitious, but they’re also rational and thus respond to the work environments they’re in. For example, if women receive signals from their employer that they’re never going to make it to the top no matter what, they’d likely make the reasonable decision to leave or choose a different path where they’re more likely to be rewarded. “You look at a set of tradeoffs and choices. They make choices based on what seems to have the highest utility, if you put it in economic terms,” said Frances Taplett, a director at BCG and one of the co-authors of the study.

Matt Krentz, a senior partner at BCG, said that the impetus for the study came from internal discussions about how to retain women and increase representation at the company’s most senior levels. As such, the researchers targeted the pockets of the company where there have been different outcomes to look at what these teams were doing that resulted in greater reported desire from female employees to rise the ranks.

“You end up with women leaving the organization, going elsewhere, because they don’t see the opportunity,” explained Krentz. “But it also leads to them fundamentally feeling disenfranchised. When you do that, you see people feeling less ambitious about what they feel they can achieve, which is what we saw.”

The report’s findings are in some ways very encouraging, indicating that there’s something managers can do to help. The first task is to recognize what probably won’t work: “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,” wrote the authors.

While institutional initiatives, such as programs to promote diversity and diverse leadership are important, day-to-day interactions which signal to all genders that the company is interested in nurturing female employees may make a big difference. The little things add up: The attitude of managers, the career advice people receive, and the comments they hear can all imply messages about the fairness of a workplace. Krentz and Taplett says that the main takeaway is not to assume that women aren’t competitive or don’t want senior roles. Instead, they say companies should focus on creating an environment that feels fair and equitable.

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