Women are losing custody of their ambition – and they don’t even know it
Women still aren’t where they should be at home and in work, but it isn’t down to a lack of ambition. In a new TED talk Emma Barnett argues that a series of invisible barriers are holding them back.
Ambition has intrigued me for a long time. At dinner parties it’s always other women who mutter that I am “terribly ambitious” when I enthuse about a big new writing or radio project, but never bat an eyelid when my husband discusses combining his day job with running a start-up. It never feels like a compliment.
I was recently invited to do a TED talk with women as the focus, so our relationship with ambition seemed like a natural choice of topic and I began to research it in earnest. As a 30-year-old woman who is yet to start a family, I wanted to think about ambition in a broader sense – not just in terms of how many female leaders there are – because it is nonsense to say women have less ambition than men.
I used to think, as Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has said, that if we women just “leaned in” more, pushed ourselves harder, and essentially had as much ambition as the boys, we would be equal.
But during the course of my research, I realised that I was wrong. Because the reality is that there are still barriers stopping women from playing leading roles in their lives, not only at work but – crucially – at home too. Some of them are self imposed; some of them carved from years of male-dominated culture. All of them are invisible.
The American author and activist Alice Walker once wisely said: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” The same is true of ambition. And there’s another point to consider: while I welcome this fourth wave of feminism – which has done much to make the doctrine funnier, fluffier and altogether less toxic – it has also done women a disservice. We’ve let our guard down too easily. We’ve become complacent.
I’ve concluded that certain subtle forces or behaviours, which I have grouped into four categories here, are ultimately what lead women all over the world to lose custody of their ambition – often without them realising
1. Poisonous Presumptions
Picture the scene: a woman starts speaking in a meeting, presenting a brilliant idea with poise and confidence. The idea is undoubtedly good for the company. Her mostly male colleagues can’t quibble with that. But they might dislike her for daring to put her head above the parapet and, believe me, they do. As a “feisty” woman (a word still reserved for the female of the species), this kind of frosty reception has followed me around since I first started advancing my views at school.
Researchers have called it the “dominance penalty” – the way our culture rewards and promotes men for acting dominantly, but silently penalises women for doing the same. This can force women to make a choice between promotion and being liked by their colleagues.
As part of this bias, reductive presumptions about women at work are made by both genders. For example, it is widely assumed that there is a paucity of female leaders because most women “opt out” of the workplace to care for children. But less acknowledged studies report that the opposite is in fact true: most women are not opting out and nor do they want to. So what’s the truth?
A survey last year of more than 25,000 Harvard Business School graduates (both male and female, aged from 26 to 67) found that only 11 per cent of the women had left the workforce to care for their children full-time. Of those, only a small number did so happily. The report concludes that “the vast majority leave reluctantly and as a last resort, because they find themselves in unfulfilling roles with dim prospects for advancement”, having been passed over for high-profile assignments or penalised for taking up flexible working options.
Then there’s the presumption that “women’s work” is still worth less – despite the Equal Pay Act. Take the case of thousands of female Birmingham City Council workers – cooks, cleaners and carers – who took the council to court in 2010. They claimed that (mostly) male workers of the same pay grade but doing “manly” jobs, such as refuse collecting and road cleaning, had been entitled to bonuses, but the women hadn’t. In one year, a binman took home £51,000 while women on the same grade earned £12,000.
The Supreme Court ruled that the actions were a breach of equal pay legislation and ordered the authority to pay £757 million in compensation. Poisonous presumptions can be expensive.
2. Nice Guy Misogyny
Sadly, “nice guy” misogynists come with no klaxon warning. We’ve all met them and probably worked alongside them. They are often terribly decent towards women, but hold extremely outdated views on what a female should be doing with her time. They’ll congratulate you should you get married or have a baby – you know, all that fuzzy home stuff.
But promote you on merit? Not a chance. Yet these men break no laws, nor treat women meanly, so they are left to continue perniciously limiting the success and eroding the ambition of the women they work with.
In 2012, US social scientists performed a series of studies in this area. They compared the views of men who had wives who worked full–time to those who had traditional stay-at-home wives, to determine any biases. They hit the jackpot. Men in traditional home set-ups viewed women in the workplace less favourably than those men with working wives.
To add insult to injury, these “benevolent sexists” (because they are usually pretty lovely) were also found to deny promotions to deserving female colleagues more often, and believe that firms with a higher percentage of female staff ran less smoothly.
3. Dumb Denial
One of the most frustrating things is when people – men and women – refuse to see there is a problem, either because they can’t or won’t. Take what happened to my friend’s 24-year-old sister, who we shall call Rosie. Just after finishing her master’s in economics, she started her first job at a City firm, full of ambition. But then she noticed something. There were no female board members – and all the way through the company there were far fewer women overall.
Rosie invited a large cross section of her female colleagues out to lunch at a local deli and pushed them on the matter. The response? Blank faces all round. None of them had “ever noticed” anything. An awkward silence ensued.
Rosie, not wanting to go overboard, dropped the issue. But, right at the end of the meal, the most senior woman present suddenly piped up. “I do sometimes wonder why all of the women who work here are so beautiful,” she said.
No one knew how respond to another difficult truth: it seemed that looks had played a part in the men’s hiring decisions. Rosie, bruised and bemused by the experience, has just let matters lie. She has rent to pay.
4. The Imitation Game
Arguably the trickiest battleground of all is the home front. While women have made huge strides in the workplace, we have made virtually none at home. And we have ourselves are to blame, in part. I couldn’t be more guilty.
It is only natural that we seek to imitate the patterns of the home life we grew up with. But while our lives may have changed immeasurably from those of our mothers, too many of us still seek to replicate their example, only while working full-time.
When I got married three years ago, despite being a full-fat feminist and working six days a week, I also thought I could combine that with being a full-time 1950s housewife. I would cringe when my husband told family, in passing, that we shared the cooking and the chores, feeling like I had somehow failed in our new marital set-up.
This wasn’t helped by my mother’s quizzical expressions whenever she learned my husband had made the dinner she was eating. My husband told me firmly that I have to accept that he is half the partnership. So it is only thanks to a feminist man that I have started to accept a fairer deal at home.
But most women still don’t. Recently, while making a documentary, I met a woman working full-time in a pottery factory in Manchester. Despite working eight hours a day on minimum wage, she told me it was “her choice” to also do all of the chores and childcare at home… just like her mum did before her. She took great pride in knowing her two children and husband were fed and cared for solely by her – incurring an extra six hours’ work a day. And so she should be proud.
But when I probed some more, I discovered she was also squeezing in intensive fitness sessions late at night. Her real dream? To become a full-time personal trainer. However, being time-poor, she admitted she probably never will. But think of the extra cash boost her dream career could give her whole family.
So what’s the answer?
Sometimes, to keep ownership of their ambition, women have to override the most primal instincts of all. It’s not easy and presents yet another invisible barrier, laid out for us before we were even born. The dice have already been thrown.
At a recent media event I was chairing, Lord Michael Grade, former chairman of the BBC and later ITV, scoffed at a fellow guest’s assertion that sexism is dead.
“Sexism hasn’t gone anywhere,” he said. “It’s just that men have become far better at hiding it.”
I thanked him for his candour: he meant it to be helpful. Because he’s right: the sexism, or prejudice if you prefer, of today isn’t obvious. But perhaps we can learn to sense the intangible bias that can eventually grind women down and lead us to lose custody of our ambition.
And the good news about custody? You can always win it back.
Source: The Telegraph