Leadership and the ambition gap

The McKinsey 2016 Women in the Workplace report was recently released; it’s taken me a bit of time to process the information in it. It’s complicated, and in the throes of a Presidential campaign that is rife with misogyny, it might even be a bit discouraging. We know in professional America, and in academic surgery, that a significant fall-off occurs in the number of women as leadership roles become more powerful. In academic surgery, we see it with the drop from 16% of Associate Professors to 9% of full Professors; we see it with the paucity of women in leadership roles in major organizations; we see it with the number of women who are department chairs (recognizing this number has improved dramatically even in the last year).

We know that women often simply don’t seek promotion to the highest levels, perhaps because work-life integration is more acutely present for women in our society. Perhaps its because we have an unconscious bias against ourselves that only allows us to take a chance on that “big” job once we’re 100% qualified (or, perhaps, more than 100% qualified).

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because we’re programmed to think of “power” and “ambition” as dirty concepts.  They’re not ladylike, and therefore we don’t want to be in that top role because that would require us to be ambitious and it would require us to use our power.

Gap in Leadership Ambition
Gap in Leadership Ambition

This week I saw an interesting complement to the idea of the the ambition gap, in which Anne-Marie Slaughter hypothesizes that women perceive ourselves as able to have a greater impact at the center of a “web” than at the top of a hierarchy. While her idea that women don’t understand the impact we can have at the top, it’s also plausible that we are so much more comfortable working collaboratively that the idea of having diffused impact through a network is what makes the most sense to us. What we may be overlooking is that we can use the same high-touch, collaborative skills when we’re in that “big” leader position, and use it to our advantage.

Maybe it’s time for us to change our thinking and stop being one of our obstacles (because heaven knows there are plenty without self-sabotage). Maybe we need to realize that it’s okay to dream big, and that it’s okay to start looking even when we don’t think we’re quite ready.  Maybe, ladies, it’s time to leap- and our nets really will appear.  It’s a win for each of us who is ready to do so, and it’s a bigger win for those coming after us as they see our courage, our commitment, and our strength.