The American workplace bolsters the confidence of men, and destroys the ambition of women

She might already have one foot out the door.
She might already have one foot out the door.
Image: Reuters/Paul Yeung
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American women enter the corporate workforce with higher aspirations to reach the top than their male counterparts, and with the confidence that they can get there. But according to research by the management consulting firm Bain & Co., women’s ambition reaches a cliff edge, and then falls off it, as early as two years into working life.

Moreover, the research found that the most common explanation for women’s slower and less certain rise through company ranks—motherhood—was irrelevant. Women are instead losing confidence in their ability to fit the stereotype of what “success” looks like at an American company.

Bain surveyed more than 1,000 woman and men and found that when starting a job, 43% of women aspired to reach top management, whereas only 34% of men saw themselves on course for the C-suite, in high-ranking roles like CEO and CFO. When asked whether they had the confidence to reach their goals, 27% of women and 28% of men answered “yes.”

But experienced employees—defined as anyone with more than two years in a firm—reported differently. Now, only 16% of women aspired to reach top management, versus 34% of men.

Women in more senior leadership positions had also lost confidence, though not as much, with 29% of senior women believing they still could make it to the top. But that was well shy of their male counterparts, 55% of whom now had the confidence they would get there.

The researchers identify two areas in which women are now better supported in their goals overall, namely the classroom—including at the university level—and in the boardroom, where many firms now have programs designed to help women in the upper-most layers of management.

But between the two poles is a void. Here, women find little encouragement and few female roles models.

“What’s not happening are discussions of goals, career strategies, job satisfaction, overall trajectory and—especially—the simple giving of real encouragement, all in a business culture that rarely celebrates women’s role models,” two Bain executives wrote in an article for Harvard Business Review.

That expanse between classroom and boardroom, where workers spend the majority of their careers, is also still dominated by a culture that excludes women, the researchers found. The golf-playing, boys’ club aspect is part of the problem. Women, far more than men, begin to feel that they “fit in” less and less as they stay at a firm. The other aspect is the long-hours culture of American firms, which glorify work above all.

“While companies may differ in many ways, there is broad acknowledgment of a deeply ingrained ideal worker model,” the researchers wrote. That ideal was someone who worked long and late, took on extra projects, was adept at self-promotion, and was always connected via phone and email.  Here women judge themselves and are judged harshly: both women and men think it’s more difficult for women to conform to the ideal stereotype because of other commitments, like having families.

But men increasingly are becoming less willing to conform to an “ideal” as well. “Our study shows that 45% of those under the age of 30—more than any other age group—envision a career that allows for periodic breaks. This finding reinforces other research indicating a generational shift in how both men and women view work,” they write.

The responsibility for helping employees maintain ambition falls to frontline managers, and the researchers offer some detailed advice (pdf, p.10) on what they can do to help.