Do Kids Make Mom Lose Her Ambition?

working mothers, female ceo
Are kids holding her back? Or is it her boss?

There are even fewer women running Fortune 500 companies this year than last year, the consulting company McKinsey & Co. reported in its recently released study, though last year’s number was nothing to celebrate either. In 2010, only 15 women were calling the shots at nation’s 500 top-earning businesses. This year, the number of chief executives is 11.

The good news is that both years are an improvement over 2000, when only two women sat at the helm, and 1995, when just one did. Still, with a bit of advancement in that area, you have to wonder, what’s keeping even more women from reaching the top? One reason, was that women lost ambition as they go older. Is it because of the kids?

I don’t think so.

The McKinsey & Co. report surveyed 2,525 college-educated men and women, 1,525 of whom were mostly employed in company management. Among their conclusions of the survey was that companies haven’t been grooming their female middle managers for advancement to vice president-level jobs, which then prepares them for taking on the top job. Women needed more coaching and leadership training to get there.

But Slate‘s Rachael Larimore picked out an otherwise uncommented on bit from the survey, quoted below:

[F]emale ambition declines sharply at middle age. About 64% of women ages 45 to 54 years old expressed a desire to advance professionally, compared with 78% of the men in the same age range. The comparable figures were 92% and 98%, respectively, for women and men aged 23 to 34.

Larimore rightly points out that lowering one’s ambitions at 45 years old runs counter to what those in their 30s and in the working mom trenches assume will be the case. Once the kids are in school, there will be more time to work, more chance to focus, and less pull from the home. Why wouldn’t women be more ambitious in their 40s and 50s, or as Larimore asks, “Shouldn’t we be finding NEW energy at this age?”

She answers her own question, noting that just because the kids are not only able to go to the bathroom on their own but are actually old enough to want to close the door, it doesn’t mean the demands of parenting are less. Here’s what she says:

Physically exhausting toddlers at least make it easy to sleep at night. But the stuff you have to worry about once they get older is the stuff that keeps you up at night, tossing and turning and constantly questioning whether you’re doing the right thing. And maybe that’s when working moms decide that they would rather stay comfortable in their job and devote what extra energy they can muster to making sure their kids get through adolescence in one piece.

I agree with her, and it’s one of parenting’s best-kept secrets: Babies are the easy part (They don’t talk back,  have opinions or get bullied). Sure, they cry in the middle of the night, but not about heartbreaking stuff. Oh, and you can pick their clothes AND friends. Older kids, not so much.

But where Larimore thinks women might be holding back at work and instead applying the extra energy one gets from a full night’s sleep and tantrum-free mornings to helping the kids navigate adolescence, I’m unsure.

The report clearly shows that women are not being groomed for advancement, while men are. Women get to watch the guy(s) next to her get mentored, groomed, taught the secret handshake, introduced to important clients and even more important company VPs while she has to figure that out on her own — if ever. After a couple of decades of this — after barely managing to avert placement on the mommy track in her early 30s — I can see where ambition might just get squelched. At some point, reality does set in. Not just about where your kids’ lives are headed, but also yours.

The self-made corporate success story is, in most cases, a myth. CEOs get there by being mentored. Men don’t get there on their own. It’s time to stop expecting women to.


Article Posted 5 years Ago

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