working women

Getting to the Top Means Being Realistic

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A recent set of Harvard Business School studies show that relative to men, we women believe we’re capable of equal success in the workforce, are less ambitious when it comes to getting the “top” jobs, perceive more conflicts associated with getting these positions, and have more non-career goals in life.

This is headier stuff than first meets the eye.

Notice that the study didn’t draw any causal conclusions. It didn’t because of a concept called “reflexivity.” Reflexivity is the idea that some things don’t have a simple cause-and-effect relationship but rather have a circular cause-and-effect relationship. An example of reflexivity is if both the following sentences are true:

  • Women are less ambitious about getting “top jobs” because they perceive more life conflicts and have other goals.
  • Women have other goals and perceive more life conflicts with getting “top jobs” because they are less ambitious.

We believe that career ambition and career success for women is absolutely a reflexive phenomenon. What we see around us influences what we think we’re capable of and vice-verse. That’s why female role models matter, moms like buying Goldie Blox for their daughters, and society seems to love (and hate) hearing female executives talk about work-life balance.

We all know that some women really are less ambitious than some men (just as some men are less ambitious than some women). But there seems to be a general reluctance to publicly admit that is true for fear of perpetuating another generation of disappointing female leadership numbers. One recent poll even found that a majority of young women think its socially unacceptable to have no ambition.

We can certainly understand that there’s a real fear of deterring some young women from trying to achieve more if we highlight any tradeoffs a career might entail. Whether those trade-offs are for more time with family or simply just increased career-related stress, there is well-meaning concern over dissuading impressionable young minds from achieving their full potential.

However, we are actually encouraged by the Harvard data. We believe that in a career marathon, the realistic ones who plan, research, and are armed with the best information are the ones more likely to survive the difficulties ahead. You wouldn’t attempt to climb Everest with just visions of glory and no expectations of frostbite. The prepared corporate executives are the ones who train themselves mentally, emotionally, and even physically for the challenges ahead. If women are more realistic than men about the trade-offs it takes to pursue anything single-mindedly, it seems to us that they may well be at an advantage.

Not every woman wants to become a CEO nor an executive and that’s absolutely fine. But we think the ones that do have a better shot if they’re realistic (warts and all) about what it may take to get there.

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