Somewhere near the top of the reasons given for why there aren’t more women and people of color in leadership roles is that they lack the ambition needed to advance up the ladder.
But ambition is a more complicated issue than either you have it or you don’t. According to Anna Fels, the author of Necessary Dreams, ambition has two requirements:
- The first is mastery, which basically boils down to being good at a specific skill/set of skills, whether through aptitude or extensive study or training.
- The second component is recognition: being recognized or appreciated for those skills by people whose opinions matter to you.
And therein lies the problem.
While the research on ambition is mixed, several recent studies have found that women and people of color often begin their careers with higher levels of interest in achieving a senior leadership role than their white male counterparts.
- Bain & Company for example, found that the percentage of women who aspire to reach the top levels of management when they enter the workforce is actually higher (43%) than the percentage of men with the same goals (34%).
- The Building Movement Project’s Race to Lead research found that people color also aspire to become leaders at greater levels than their white peers: 52% vs. 37%.
So what happens?
Those aspirations aren't recognized.
Both Bain and Race to Lead identified perceived level of support from supervisors as a significant factor in whether women and people of color maintained an interest in senior leadership positions.
- Bain found that women’s perception of supervisory support decreases dramatically over time: 43% for new workers vs. 16% by the time they are experienced employees (men’s stay fairly consistent at 34% before jumping to 56% among senior leaders).
- Similarly, the Race to Lead Revisited research identified differences in the perceived level of the support by experienced diverse workers as a critical factor in their interest in climbing the career ladder.
With unequal levels of career support from their supervisors, women and people of color often lack the recognition needed to sustain the level of ambition they had when they started their careers. Others may see it as a lack of ambition, but it actually is what happens to when ambition isn’t acknowledged and nurtured.
The good news?
There are opportunities in everyday interactions for frontline managers to recognize and encourage interest in career advancement among all employees. Bain calls these “moments of truth” - when supervisors can ask about and understand their employees’ career goals, when they can advocate for their employees for promotions and high-profile assignments, when they can help employees make connections and interact with role models.
No massive, new initiatives needed.
There is one final note: supervisors need to know that a diverse pipeline is a high priority in the organization and a critical component in how their own performance will be evaluated. I once heard a CEO say that high-performing employees wouldn't last long in his organization if they couldn't manage and support a diverse workforce. Most companies wouldn't make that same choice.
Maybe it's time they did.