Some argue that one reason women are not proportionally represented at the top of the corporate ladder is that they do not want to be. Do women lack the ambition and appetite for power that are required to reach the top?
This question has been the subject of discussion before. Nearly a decade ago, Patricia Sellers published an article in Fortune titled, “Power: Do Women Really Want It?” The very question sparked controversy. Then there was uproar surrounding Lisa Belkin’s perspective in the NY Times that there was an “Opt Out Revolution,” women choosing to leave the business world in droves. All of this was reprised later in a research report by Simmons School of Management — which posed the right question, “Power for what”? Mary Pritchard recently asked in the Huffington Post “Are Today’s Young Women Afraid to Lead?” (This was in response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece on “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”; Pritchard suggested that younger women have received the message that leadership is unattainable because they must have and do it all perfectly.)
To consider whether women want power, we must first avoid stereotyping. Women do not all think, work or lead alike, any more than all men are the same. The question is: Do women in general have less ambition than men in general? So let’s use my prototypes for masculine and feminine, Max (representing the masculine view in both men and women) and Fran (representing the feminine perspective, whether in a man or woman). Does Fran have less ambition or interest in power than Max? Or does Fran define ambition and power differently than Max, whose perspective predominates in the workplace? There is a difference, and this difference causes some women to be seen as less ambitious and less comfortable with power. This difference diminishes the appetite of some women for the climb to the top.
So how do Max and Fran see power and ambition? The masculine view of power is about who has more or less of it. To Max, those high up in an organization have more of it than those at lower levels. Some people have power over others. The feminine view is more about how power is shared; power is distributed less hierarchically. Role and rank matter less; the preferred structure is a network. Power is used to get things done with and through others.
Ambition from Max’s perspective is about competition and winning. It is about getting to the top, to the “alpha” position in a hierarchy. Fran’s version of ambition has more to do with collaboration than competition; she cares more about purpose than status. Ambition, as defined in Max’s world, is obscured by Fran’s tendency not to ask directly for what she wants and to speak with disclaimers and questions, wait to apply for a position until she feels fully qualified and avoid taking credit or tooting her own horn.
Are women less ambitious, less interested in power? No. Some want both in the masculine form. (These women have to watch out for the double bind; ambitious women are not always beloved.) Others just define and demonstrate them differently. These women may be turned off or shut down by the masculine definitions of power and ambition. They may not want to reach the top in the same way or for the same reasons as men.
Companies can capture the upside of gender diversity in leadership only by creating cultures were women want to succeed, where the climb to the top is consistent with feminine values and needs. This requires that leaders broaden their definitions of ambition and power and honor the feminine as well as masculine forms of both.
How do you define ambition and power? How do you think broadening these definitions can be good for business?