Closing The Gap

Ambition is not the problem: Women want the top jobs—they just don't get them


Women in the U.S. make up nearly half of the entry-level workforce, but comprise only a fifth of the C-suite. Yet any assumption that this scarcity at the top is due to a lack of ambition is wrong, according to CNBC and SurveyMonkey's new Women at Work survey. 

Among the 1,068 working U.S. women who participated in the survey, 54% said they are "very ambitious" when it comes to their career and 35% said they are "somewhat ambitious." Meanwhile, just 3% said they're "not ambitious at all."

When asked, "What job level do you expect to be at in 10 years," 15% of women between the ages of 18-44 said the C-suite. Yet, just 6% of S&P 500 companies have female CEOs, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit organization that works to build equitable workplaces for women.

"It's disappointing," former finance executive Noreen Doyle tells CNBC Make It. The slow progress that's been made diversifying senior leadership is a clear indication that "there are a lot of subtle ways where men have been advantaged over women," she says. 

As a member of Paradigm for Parity, a coalition of business leaders who are dedicated to closing the gender gap in corporate America by 2030, Doyle explains that retaining and promoting female talent is more than just a diversity issue. According to McKinsey & Company data, it's also a critical business issue: $4.3 trillion can be added to the country's economy if gender parity is reached by 2025. 

Today, nearly 60% of bachelor's and master's degrees are awarded to women, suggesting there is no shortage of qualified women entering the pipeline. But when faced with unconscious bias and limited workplace support, making it to the top can seem like an out-of-reach goal, even for the most ambitious women.

Unconscious bias

Prior to becoming the chair of Newmont Mining Corporation, Doyle worked in finance for more than 40 years and served as the first female vice president of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 2001 to 2005. Throughout her career in banking, she saw firsthand how unconscious gender bias affected the advancement of women. 

She recalls the time when she was working as head of banking at EBRD and had a male colleague propose that an entry-level male employee be promoted to a position she knew he wasn't qualified for. 

"When I told him, 'I don't think he's as capable in terms of his experience as one of his female peers who knows the region better,'" Doyle says. "He kind of looked at me like, 'Really?' At that point, because I was the boss, I said, 'Yeah, I think she would be better at it.'"

Today, for every 100 men promoted and hired to a manager position, only 72 women are promoted and hired for the same role, reported Lean In and McKinsey & Company in a 2019 "Women in the Workplace" study. For women of color, this figure is even lower, with just 68 Latina women and 58 black women being promoted to manager for every 100 entry-level men who are promoted to the same job. 

This is despite 75% of black women, 65% of Hispanic women and 46% of white women viewing themselves as "very ambitious" toward their career, according to CNBC and SurveyMonkey data.

Lean In co-founder and CEO Rachel Thomas says bias in the hiring and promotion process is the "most obvious explanation" of why women are locked out of top positions. "We know that performance bias — or this belief that men are slightly more capable or competent than they are, and that women are slightly less capable and competent than they are — is so pervasive that it impacts our decision-making," she says. 

"Men are typically hired based on potential and what we believe they can do," Thomas adds, "while women are typically hired and promoted based on what they've already accomplished."

Lean In has coined the phrase "the broken rung" to refer to the issue of young, qualified women being passed over for early management roles. If companies don't pay attention to this gender bias, Thomas says, the leadership pipeline will continue to be filled with an overwhelming number of men.

Lack of mentorship and sponsorship

After graduating from Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business in 1974, Doyle worked on Wall Street at Bankers Trust, a bank that was acquired by Deutsche Bank in 1999. During her time there, her boss, who was also a Dartmouth alum, served as her mentor. "He was very helpful to me when it came to understanding the strategy and politics of the organization," she says. "He was helpful in steering me in the way that would move me up the organization and not laterally."

That support, Doyle says, was crucial in her growing a successful 18-year career at Bankers Trust, and later in the vice president role at EBRD.

She admits not all women are afforded the same access to opportunity and support.

Overall, women in corporate America are 24% less likely than men to get advice from senior leaders, according to a Lean In and SurveyMonkey study. And 62% of women of color say they believe a lack of mentorship holds them back in their career.

To make matters worse, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, 60% of male managers in the U.S. said they are now uncomfortable participating in workplace activities with women such as mentoring, one-on-one meetings or social outings. 

"[Men] don't realize that by shying away from women, they're still part of the problem because that means women are getting less access, less mentorship and less sponsorship," says Thomas.

Serena Fong, Catalyst vice president of strategic engagement, agrees. When women are not afforded sponsorship and mentorship opportunities, they are less likely to be "recommended for the jobs that will really get them into high-level positions," she says. And they are more likely to be "left out of development and advancement opportunities." This scenario often leaves women feeling left out or like an "other" at work, leading some women to "downsize their own aspirations."

This may help explain why 65% of women ages 18-29 say they are "very ambitious" in their career, compared to 49% of women ages 45-54 and 46% of women ages 55-64 saying the same. 

To ensure that women don't lose hope, Doyle says, it's imperative that companies put specific plans in place to advance women at work. This includes unconscious bias training, hiring and promoting women fairly and equal access to sponsorship and mentorship opportunities.

This also includes creating an environment where women can comfortably take advantage of paid time off and flex time. According to CNBC and SurveyMonkey data, 34% of women with children under 18 say they are "very concerned" that taking advantage of flexible work arrangements might prevent them from achieving their goals. 

In order for women to advance, Thomas says, more companies need to put forth policies and practices that will allow women to "be their best self at work." 

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