Do women lack ambition?

No, this isn't an excuse for infrequent blogging....

HBR is carrying an interesting study on gender differences by Anna Fels, author of Necessary Dreams.

For women - far more than for men - the decision to pursue an interest is reconsidered repeatedly and often abandoned. To realize their dreams, women need to understand why they are willing to walk away from them.

A lot of aspects presented here are things we've heard before: girls receive less attention in school; women are socialized to be givers, not receivers of care and recognition; on average women underestimate and men overestimate their abilities; etc. The interesting part of this study is the analysis of ambition, skills and rewards that highlights an important shift in the discrimination debate.

The elimination of the barriers that have historically kept women from mastering a subject - such as restrictions on admission to professional schools or the habit of doing business and advancing careers inside men-only clubs - has brought women a long way toward realizing their ambitions. But the pressure on girls and women to relinquish opportunities for recognition in the workplace continues to have powerful repercussions.

One key type of discrimination that women face is the expectation the "feminine" women will forfeit opportunities for recognition at home and at work. Being silenced or ignored often remains a baffling and frustrating barrier to women's understanding of how their lives are shaped. This is a "sin of omission" rather than one of commission, so it's hard to spot. It's not as obvious as being denied the right to vote or access to birth control. Women tend to feel foolish asking for appropriate acknowledgement of their contributions.

Anna Fels approaches the topic through exploratory interviews (her own and others'), and this gives her study a welcome subjective perspective that explains more than the many statistics out there. Many of her interview partners try to downplay their own importance or move out of the limelight.

"Can't you just say that I'm this totally bumbling person?" An acclaimed architect
"Everything has been rather serendipitous... I was able to get good positions and good things just happened." A senator
"I didn't want to be recognized in the streets." A journalist

Anna Fels proposes that ambition has 2 sides: mastery of a skill and recognition for it. The most intense social pressures are no longer about mastery. Hardly anyone claims today that women lack the native ability to become neurosurgeons or executives. And the problems don't tend to arise in college or in the first few years of a career. These days, the threat to women's ambitions comes at a later phase of women's lives, when they have families and are advancing to more competitive positions in their work. Women who pursue careers must cope with jobs structured to accommodate the life cycles of men with wives who don't have full-time careers. And they must suffer the social pressure to fulfill more traditional, "feminine" roles."

Women have greater opportunities for forming and pursuing their own goals now than at any time in history. But doing so is socially condoned only if they have first satisfied the needs of all their family members: husbands, children, elderly parents and others. If this requirement isn't met, women's ambitions as well as their femininity will be called into question.

This leaves women with a skewed set of rewards for their work and achievements, Although they may find mastery as satisfying as do their male peers, the social rewards that women can expect to reap for their skills are diminished. The personal and societal recognition they receive for their accomplishments is quantitatively poorer, qualitatively more ambivalent, and, perhaps most discouraging, less predictable.

Given such low and uncertain reward expectations it's sometimes surprising that women even bother. And, as a matter of fact, they often give up. As one author discovered, "Women are only slightly more likely to follow the paths they expect to [early on] than not." Anyone who ever championed traditional women's rights by saying that society would otherwise miss out on 50% of its potential talent and contributions should feel very depressed...

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