Women's Ambition: A Surprising Report

MORE partnered with the Polling Company/WomenTrend to ask women what they really want from their careers. Flexibility? Advancement? Our exclusive findings will surprise you.

by Lesley Jane Seymour • Editor-in-Chief
Photograph: Phil Toledano

Since the 1970s, women have poured into the American workplace—and now we're at a crossroads. Stymied in our efforts to advance, confused about how to manage both a full personal life and a promising career, women are asking two questions: “Is it possible?” and “Is it worth it?” Their answers will surprise you.

For More's third annual workplace report, we partnered with the Polling Company/WomanTrend to survey women nationwide about their attitudes toward their jobs. The responses make clear that in the search for balance, women are sacrificing ambition. When asked point-blank, 43 percent of women described themselves as less ambitious now than they were 10 years ago; only 15 percent reported feeling more ambitious. The exception is African-American women, who are twice as likely as average to say they are more ambitious.

This shoulder shrugging is not the old optout, when women decided they'd seen enough and stepped away politely to have babies, assuming they could opt back in later on. Nor are women slowing down because they're not getting enough help at home; only 15 percent of respondents said household or child-care duties have held them back in their careers. These women want to work (only 11 percent say they'd like to put in fewer hours); they just don't want to advance. A full 73 percent say they would not apply for their boss's job. Why? Thirty-eight percent say they don't want the politics, pressure and responsibility.

Declining ambition among women is a trend, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, which performs nationwide studies tracking workplace issues. Galinsky points out that though in 1992, 40 percent of women ages 35 to 44 said they wanted a job with more responsibility, by 2008 that figure had fallen to 35 percent. “With the recession, the threat of terrorist attacks, the natural disasters we've been living through—all of this makes us ask, ‘What are our values? What's important to us?’ ” she says. “And what I hear people say all the time is, ‘When I'm sick and in the hospital, my job isn't going to hold my hand.’ ”

While it's true that jobs have never been tailored to meet women's needs, it's also true that they can be—and one way is through increased career flexibility. That may mean working from home or at odd hours; it may mean compressing your schedule or starting a business. However you define it, “at the heart of flexibility is having control,” Galinsky says. “Flexibility means that you have rights and responsibilities: You have some right to decide how or when you're going to work. At the same time, you are also accountable for doing your work.” And, no, the recession has not put the kibosh on the dream of a woman-friendly schedule. “Flexibility is here to stay,” Galinsky says. “Public perception is that work-life balance equals the chance to work less. But that's not the case. If you give people flexibility, they tend to be grateful and work more.”

So let's be clear: Wanting a more flexible career is not about being lazy, uncommitted or unwilling to work long hours. “Women take work seriously and want to be taken seriously at work,” says Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, a senior vice president at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization concerned with women and business. Instead, the search for a flexible career is about crafting a way of life that doesn't require one partner to stay home while the other works 80 hours a week outside the house. Survey respondents told us overwhelmingly that career flexibility is what they want: 92 percent say it's a key part of finding the right job. Women are finished living to work; now we want to work to live.


10 Great Careers: stats, videos and MORE from our 2011 workplace survey

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First Published November 9, 2011

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