November 22nd, 2011 | 6:00 am

Women, Age, and Ambition – A Fresh Perspective

filed under Featured, Next Level

Smiling mature business woman in meetingBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recently More Magazine released the results of a survey on ambition, work/life issues, and other topics. According to the survey of 500 college educated women over 35, 43% of respondents said they were less ambitious now than they were ten years ago.

The headline that many news outlets and websites ran with was along the lines of “Women are Losing Ambition.”

Well, not exactly.

In fact, the survey revealed quite the opposite. Because, while 43% of the survey respondents said they were less ambitious now than they were ten years ago, the majority (57%) said they were just as or more ambitious today.

I repeat: the majority of women in the survey said they were just as or more ambitious now than they were 10 years ago. Amazing what insight you can gain by shifting your perspective.

It is curious that so many ambitious women’s voices (the majority!) have been ignored. Why is it easier to pretend that ambitious women don’t exist?

Flexibility and Ambition – Not Mutually Exclusive

More reports that “92% consider flexibility to be important in a job – up from 73% in 2009.” The survey also revealed “65% of Women say it’s more important to have time in their lives than to make more money at their jobs.” And, “40% of women would take a pay cut for more flexibility.”

But calls for more flexibility do not mean that women are less driven by their careers.

We shouldn’t misconstrue a desire for flexibility with a lack of ambition. That’s just the kind of confusion that blockades career advancement and drives women out when workplaces can’t or won’t work around their needs. When we begin equating flex scheduling with a lack of ambition, we justify career-derailing mommy-track work cultures.

In fact, we should look at the growing desire for flexibility as an indication that women increasingly want to stay in the workforce. Rather than “opt out” when personal responsibilities demand time and attention, the women surveyed are looking to their employers to work with them and create a pathway for maintaining their career trajectory.

In an interview with Amy Levin-Epstein at CBS MoneyWatch, Jennifer Braunschweiger, deputy editor of More, said, “… [the results] also said that women who want a career and a life are ambitious in a different way. That’s what’s interesting – valuing time over money may signal a shift in ambition, and the beginning of a more nuanced definition of success, one that takes into account the many facets of a woman’s life.”

Women are looking to establish new ways to achieve their dreams, and that doesn’t mean obeying an antiquated “up or out” regimen. It also doesn’t mean they are any less ambitious than before.

Age and Ambition

At the same time, a study revealing that 43% of women say they have lost ambition over the course of a decade is notable and certainly worth discussing in a generational context. But should it really be surprising that individuals over 35 report being less ambitious than their starry-eyed 25-year-old selves?

Existing generational data around this issue may serve to clarify the More research. For example, a recent Kelly OGG study of 97,000 people from the Americas, APAC, and EMEA showed that Gen Y workers were significantly more ambitious than their more experienced colleagues. Based on their own data, Kelly’s researchers said we shouldn’t attribute this downward trend in ambition to particular generational groups (i.e. Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomers, etc.), as much as an outcome of general aging and gaining experience.

The report explains:

“While most people aspire to move up the organizational hierarchy and advance their careers, it’s clear that traditional ambition decreases with age.

“Although eight in ten Gen Y’s aspire to become executives, less than three-quarters of Gen X’ers and a little more than half of Baby Boomers feel the same desire to climb the corporate ladder.

“Juggling competing priorities, as well as gaining a better understanding of what is required to secure and maintain senior positions, are undoubtedly factors that contribute to this decrease as we age. Yet, it seems age could also be encouraging people to think more holistically about their careers.”

Age and experience play a huge role in how individuals feel about getting to the next level, as well as their strategies for getting there. Of course, there is gender pressure on women’s attitudes toward advancement potential. But implying that a loss of ambition is mainly the result of a desire for flexibility isn’t just wrong – it’s damaging.

5 comments

  1. Kate Putnam

    Ambition also comes back later in life, as I have discovered.

  2. Karen

    At age 58, I’ve had a change of outlook on what’s important in my life. With my divorce in 1988, I was ambitious due to the need to support myself and child. I worked three part-time jobs while attending college to attain my accounting degree. I found a career that was challenging and met our financial needs. But I also missed a lot of firsts with my young child who was receiving care from several different providers. As I have aged, I’ve not been as “ambitious” as I was fresh out of college. My present career comfortably meets my financial needs yet allows more time for family and friends – relationships that truly matter.

  3. Darcy Eikenberg

    Thanks for the great insight into this well-publicized article. Based on my work with up-and-coming professionals, Thanks for this article. I’d agree that today’s smartest women are not less ambitious; they are choosing to be ambitious about the right things that matter to them–not things that society or even their companies may care about most. They are stepping up to make their own choices, and making choices means letting go of other things.

    (In addition, I’d observe that these issues are of similar importance to men–we just don’t seem to conduct these types of surveys with men very often!!)

    Darcy Eikenberg, ACC
    Author, “Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence & Control” (to be released Jan. 2012)
    Founder, RedCapeRevolution.com

  4. Darcy Eikenberg

    Thanks for the great insight into this well-publicized article. Based on my work with up-and-coming professionals, I’d agree that today’s smartest women are not less ambitious; they are choosing to be ambitious about the right things that matter to them–not things that society or even their companies may care about most. They are stepping up to make their own choices, and making choices means letting go of other things.

    (In addition, I’d observe that these issues are of similar importance to men–we just don’t seem to conduct these types of surveys with men very often!!)

    Darcy Eikenberg, ACC
    Author, “Bring Your Superpowers to Work: Your Guide to More Clarity, Confidence & Control” (to be released Jan. 2012)
    Founder, RedCapeRevolution.com

  5. Teresa

    Darcy poses a great question. If men were asked if they would take a pay cut for more flexible position, I wonder how those stats would play out.
    As a 30 year old with twin infants, I have to say that I am more ambitious now than ever; while in the same breath-even though I am willing to put in whatever effort is needed to go above and beyond in my career- I would love more flexibility to spend time with my two young sons. I can also say with assurance – my husband wishes the same.