Can you maintain your ambition when life gets in the way? Two new studies

9 years ago

Two new studies today center around women and the ambition to rise to the top. Ambition to advance in a profession, ambition to run for political office. They document the hard choices faced by women of childbearing age when they are managing work, family, and their own ambitions and aspirations.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett writes about a new study she co-authored that looks at women in fields of science, hi-tech, and engineering. Contrary to much popular belief, women are reaching parity in such fields- young women. Something funny happens along the way to the corner office. Hewlett writes her study:

...demonstrates that over 40% of highly qualified scientists, engineers and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders are now female. In pharmaceuticals, high tech, petro-chemicals, and aerospace, young women are making impressive strides – and garnering rave performance reviews.

This rosy picture is spoiled by one calamitous fact. A little ways down the road, more than half of these women drop out—pushed and shoved by macho work environments, serious isolation, and extreme job pressures.

This new research identifies a fight-or-flight moment (ages 35–40) when female attrition spikes dramatically. Around 35-40, women across SET experience a perfect storm. Career problems escalate and family pressures deepen at the same time. The losses are massive – fully 52% of women fall away. This is hugely painful, both for women who abandon hard-won credentials and for employers struggling with worsening labor shortages.

A new report from political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox finds that fewer women hold elected office because fewer women think about running for office. The authors found women are simply less politically ambitious than men. But the story is more complicated than that. Women are not only less likely to consider running for political office because they consider themselves less qualified, women are also more likely to consider it a "third job" and too much to tackle. Again, it's mostly professional working women in their thirties and earlier forties. Writes Ruth Marcus in today's Washington Post,

The women in the survey were far less likely to be married or have children than the men were, and those who did had their hands full: 60 percent of the women, compared with 4 percent of the men, said they were responsible for the majority of child care.

As Beloit College political scientist Georgia Duerst-Lahti put it, "Women may now think about running for office, but they probably think about it while they are making the bed." Chugging down the Mommy Track may leave little time for pursuing a third, often all-consuming career.

Women candidates and office holders have been getting older. The average woman who runs for Congress is about 48.4.

My own feeling is that extra ambition is simply another burden for women at certain times in our lives. Hewlett calls it the "fight or flight moment between 35-40 when attrition spikes dramatically." It's too much to fight for the big job while the pressures of one's personal life change and escalate. It's too much to work full time and raise kids and even think about running for office (women who work part-time are far more civically engaged than those who work full-time outside the home). I don't believe women are less ambitious throughout our whole life span, but maybe we become so, at least for a while.

There is a good reason Hillary Clinton, our first major female candidate, is 60 and not 40. She's well-past mommy age, and she had it bad enough. Imagine the sexism, hard choices and impossible double binds she would have faced had Chelsea still been 5 years old?

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