It turns out that having a womb and being ambitious are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, a woman’s ambition doesn’t disappear when she delivers a baby.
It does fade away, steadily, however, when it is unsupported by an employer.
If you’ve experienced this yourself, it’s unlikely you will be surprised by research findings that confirm it.
But for anyone and everyone who has subscribed to the popular beliefs that women are less ambitious than men, or that ambition evaporates on becoming pregnant, delivering a child, or getting married, a new study by the Boston Consulting Group confirms you are mistaken.
The survey, of more than 200,000 employees found that women are every bit as ambitious as men when they start their careers. But that ambition deteriorates when they work for companies that fail to nurture and encourage it.
The sobering reality is that, still, too many of our workplaces don’t nurture and encourage women’s ambitions.
But when they do, the result can be life-changing.
Several years ago, I was interviewing Cynthia Whelan, the chief executive of Barclays at the time, about the lack of senior females in business and she said something that has stuck with me. I can remember the quote verbatim from the top of my head: not because I have the memory of an elephant but because her words resonated.
“The reality is many women don’t choose to leave employment, it simply gets to a point where they can’t stay," Whelan said. “They don’t necessarily want to stop working or stop their career but they can’t do it any more because it can get too hard."
I have seen it time and time again.
I know, from my own experience, that the difference between juggling work and a family comfortably and not at all, is a supportive employer.
With an encouraging and understanding manager – it is not only possible to survive, but thrive. Without that? It’s impossible.
The biggest break of my career came when I was on maternity leave with a four-month old baby and a toddler.
"The biggest break of my career came when I was on maternity leave with a four-month old baby and a toddler"Georgie Dent
At the time I received a message, out of the blue, my ambition was lying dormant.
With each of our three daughters I have spent the first few months of their lives happily (and exhausted) ensconced in a baby bubble. I have retreated from the outside world in favour of a shrunken life revolving around my home, my family and the community around us.
Being approached about editing a website was the spark that reignited my ambition after our second child.
From the outset – even before I was offered the job - I was given something invaluable by my boss-to-be: total flexibility and support. Not just in words, but in deeds.
I was able to design my work hours and week around what would work with my family and kids. My manager had no doubt that I could perform in the role. She knew, from her own experience, exactly how much was possible when working with small kids.
Lots of managers don’t have that experience themselves. They don’t understand employees whose lives are blended.
How many employers would look at a woman with a 7-month old baby and a 3-year old and thinks “That’s the person I’d like to recruit”? I’d argue very few.
And, yet, it was easily the best thing that ever happened to my career. I didn’t have to bend over backwards pretending I didn’t have children. I didn’t butt heads with anyone about the time I had to leave my desk to do the pick-up. I was able to focus on the job at hand and I thrived.
But that isn’t the norm. Speak to any group of working mothers and you will soon hear the barriers they come up against. Not out of malice or mismanagement, but out of misunderstanding. Too many workplaces and managers operate under the mistaken belief that motherhood and work are incompatible, and that simply ensures it remains the case.
I count my lucky stars often that I have encountered bosses, managers, co-workers and mentors, who have nurtured my various ambitions: at work and at home.
But having the opportunity to integrate work with a family shouldn’t arise as a stroke of good luck. It should be the norm.
The best thing about Bain’s new study is that they say it can be the norm, easily.
Nurturing women’s ambition isn’t difficult for companies to achieve and the benefits are there for the taking.