Why Ambition Isn’t Working for Women

It's not that women are less driven. But the things they strive for aren't helping them get to the top.

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Photo by Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

If you want to insult a woman but sound like you’re paying her a compliment, there are a few ways you can do it. If she is not particularly attractive, you tell her she has beautiful hair. If she seems a little dim, you say, “You’re so nice!” And if you work with her and she’s pushy, or she’s grasping, or sharp-elbowed, or a land grabber, or simply annoying in a way you can’t put your finger on, you say, “You’re very ambitious.” Which is code for so many other things, nearly all of them bad.

A few years ago a colleague of my husband’s remarked to him, “Kristin must be incredibly ambitious.” I have been the editor of Real Simple for more than a decade, and in that time the brand has grown bigger and bigger. I chalk up my success to love, dedication and the fact that luck favors the prepared. It is this growth trajectory, I believe, that prompted the comment. Which may have been an insult. I don’t know. But I do know that my husband’s reaction was a puzzled “Not really.” Which is both true and perhaps a sign that my husband still really likes me.

TIME and Real Simple recently conducted our second annual poll exploring this very territory: how men and women define success and ambition, whether they view them differently, how priorities change over the course of a lifetime. The findings are surprising, and a bit depressing—or not, depending on how you look at career arcs and the meaning of life. While American women and men have similar levels of ambition (51 percent of men and 38 percent of women would describe themselves as very or extremely ambitious), the whys and the wherefores are complicated.

This subject of women’s ambition and how we deal with it has long been textured and fraught. Three years ago, Anne-Marie Slaughter published her controversial article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic, and seven months later, Sheryl Sandberg gave us her blockbuster book, Lean In. Slaughter’s article explained her decision to leave her dream job as director of policy planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to spend more time with her sons. For countless women who struggle to balance work and family demands, it was a validating reality check. Lean In inspired others with Sandberg’s personal story, plus her exhortation that women must claim their place at the table in order to succeed in their careers. Both Sandberg and Slaughter reignited the simmering debate over why women, despite outperforming men academically for a generation, still were not making it to the top.

Now lean in is cultural shorthand and Slaughter has written her own book, Unfinished Business, which comes out this month. Where Sandberg’s book is a call to individual action—you know you’ve got that ambition, girls; now own it—Slaughter’s is a thoughtful memo to a culture that makes it extremely difficult for working women to ever feel they’re getting it right. “Sandberg focuses on how young women can climb into the C-suite in a traditional male world of corporate hierarchies,” Slaughter writes. “I see that system itself as antiquated and broken.” Her viewpoint is less optimistic, in a way, but also acknowledges a holistic view of ambition and success. (She quotes an essay published in the Princeton campus newspaper in which an undergraduate woman tells a friend, “I don’t even know if I want a career. I want to get married, stay home and raise my kids. What’s wrong with me?”)

Companies are failing to see that for women, ambition is about much more than the job. And if laser-focused career ambition at the expense of a rewarding personal life is what it takes to capture the seat in the proverbial corner office—well, many women would rather not sit there. We spoke to a number of professional women about how they realized that ambition meant something different than they had originally thought.

Although young women are more ambitious than young men in the traditional sense of the word (girls are graduating in greater numbers than boys with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and those numbers have been climbing over the past half a century), when TIME and Real Simple asked women and men about their ambition, the results weren’t terribly different. Nearly 90 percent of respondents of both sexes say they were raised to believe ambition is important.

Yet how we view ambition in others is trickier, especially for women. “When you say ‘ambitious woman’ there’s a judgy tinge to it that doesn’t happen for men,” says Stephanie Clifford, a New York Times reporter and the author of the new novel Everybody Rise. “If all you hear about a woman is that she’s ambitious, you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her.” One ugly, lingering detail from the sexual-discrimination lawsuit that former venture capitalist Ellen Pao brought against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers earlier this year was the allegation that a male executive said women were not invited to an important business dinner because they would “kill the buzz.”

“Naked ambition in a woman is problematic in the business world,” says Betsy Stark, managing director of content and media strategy of Ogilvy Public Relations and a former business correspondent for ABC News. “We continue to walk a fine line. We have to demonstrate enough ambition to be taken seriously as ‘success material’ but not so much that we’re perceived as a freight train. Relentless ambition in a man is more likely to be respected as what it takes to get to the top.”

The statistics on women making it to the top remain grim. While there were 12 women running Fortune 500 companies in 2011 and now there are 23, that still represents only 4.6 percent of all 500 CEOs. Bonnie Gwin doesn’t believe ambition is the problem. Gwin is the vice chair at executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles who focuses on searches at the director and CEO level. In her experience, women are just as ambitious as men. But while women “want to be successful in whatever domain they choose,” she says, “women are less direct about their ambition. It’s not something that women put out there all the time.” In fact, our poll revealed that more than a third of women feel they have too little ambition, and half say it’s not acceptable not to be ambitious.

A woman’s attitude toward ambition, Gwin believes, is “a little more personal and contextual. I know a lot of women who are very driven and want to follow a corporate path and are aiming for top jobs, and I also know others where it’s not the path they want.” Whether out of desire or need, women define success in terms of both professional and personal accomplishment. Slaughter writes that “thinking of careers as a single race in which everyone starts at the same point and competes over the same period … tilts the scales in favor of the workers who can compete that way.” And many women have found that they can’t. Or won’t.

What does it mean for American business when highly educated, highly skilled employees who have earned substantial workplace equity decide that the equity they have accrued in their personal lives is more valuable? How does one calculate that in terms of potential profit or institutional knowledge lost? Slaughter points out that when corporations and law firms “hemorrhage talented women who reject lockstep career paths and question promotion systems that elevate quantity of hours worked over the quality of the work itself, the problem is not with the women.

No, it’s not. Simply put, American corporate life is set up in a way that makes it very hard for women to feel successful both at home and at work. Our family-leave policies are abysmal compared with those in other developed countries, and the percentage of American women in the workforce has continued to drop since it peaked in 2010, while it is rising in other countries. Does a corporate culture that devalues families also kill ambition? After all, in our poll, 68 percent of women and 74 percent of men said they believe ambition is not something a person is born with but a character trait that is developed. So what happens if conditions aren’t ripe for development?

Recently Bain & Co. conducted a study in which the consulting firm asked 1,000 men and women working for U.S. companies whether they aspired to top management. For employees with two or fewer years of service, women outpaced men in aspiration. After two years, their aspiration diminished by 60 percent, while men’s remained constant. When Bain interviewed more senior managers, the level of ambition rose but was still much lower in women than in men. As Orit Gadiesh wrote with one of the study’s authors, Julie Coffman, on HBR.com in May, “The majority of leaders celebrated in a corporate newsletter or an offsite meeting tend to consist of men hailed for pulling all-nighters or for networking their way through the golf course. If corporate recognition and rewards focus on those behaviors, women feel less able, let alone motivated to try, to make it to the top.”

After 25 years at HBO, executive vice president Shelley Wright Brindle has decided to leave–not because she hasn’t found success there but because she wants to define success on her own terms. The mother of three kids still at home says she’s learned that working mothers often thrive more in workplaces that value output over face time: “There needs to be better ways to facilitate women to network other than the cocktail thing at night and the golf thing. If that remains the primary networking tool, women are never going to get to the C-suite, because that’s not the choice they’re going to make.”

When it comes to success in corporate America, context trumps competence. Lisa Shalett, now the chief marketing officer of The Odyssey, a social content platform, recently concluded a 20-year career at Goldman Sachs with both a highly sought-after partner title and the wisdom of experience regarding what women must do to thrive in a male environment. “Ambition,” says Shalett, “needs care and feeding, having the kind of informal relationships where you understand ‘How do I navigate this path, what do I need to know, how can I get there?’ Men tend to be ambitious for things, for positions, for titles, for results. Women tend to be ambitious to be recognized for performance, to be valued, to be included, and maybe expect that good things will come from that.”

Barnard president Debora Spar believes entrepreneurial has replaced ambitious for a new generation. “I don’t think anyone has ever come in my office and said, ‘I’m ambitious.’ Everyone I know is ‘entrepreneurial.'” And now a number of ambitious women are simply channeling their dissatisfaction with traditional corporate life into fast-growing new businesses. Katharine Zaleski is the founder, with Milena Berry, of PowerToFly, a web-based employment service for women who want to work remotely. “Women aren’t being less ambitious,” says Zaleski. “They are just unable to commit to a structure that was set up for 50 percent of the population.” Launched just a year ago, PowerToFly has connected women to jobs in 43 countries. Mae O’Malley, a former Google contract lawyer, established Paragon Legal with the same idea. O’Malley’s San Francisco firm employs almost 70 lawyers, most of them women looking for ways to make their careers fit their lives, not vice versa. “What Paragon does is allow them a safe harbor for a couple of years where they can do meaningful work such that when they feel like they can do it, they can step right back in. Prior to models like Paragon, you either stayed in and worked the 100-hour weeks or you leave, and you don’t come back.”

“One of the best reasons to strive to be the boss,” Slaughter writes, “is the much greater latitude you have to make sure meetings and work are in sync with your schedule rather than someone else’s.” Yes, this is a first-world problem; the woman who is working three shifts to put food on the table is not losing sleep over whether she is leaning in enough. But more women need to see a clear path to the boss’s seat. A national poll conducted last year of nonworking U.S. adults ages 25 to 54 found that 61 percent of women who weren’t working cited family responsibilities as the reason (the number for men was 37 percent); of those who hadn’t looked for a job in a year, almost 75 percent said they would consider going back to work if a job offered flexible hours or the opportunity to work from home.

I have wondered, on occasion, if what separates men from women when it comes to ambition is a matter of biology. Specifically, hormones. But then I think that sounds retrograde, like something a loose-cannon (male) presidential candidate might claim.

How else, though, to explain the fact that in research data and anecdotal evidence, for women ambition is about a lot more than work? In our poll, men were more likely than women to say they would still work even if they were independently wealthy and did not need a job to support themselves and their families. Women were less likely to have missed an important family event to advance their careers and less likely to be raising their children to believe ambition is extremely important.

It’s the “there must be more to life” problem. Wright Brindle explains: “You get to a certain point in your career, and you’re like ‘Are you kidding me?’ Women start out equally ambitious, but men are still the drivers of what success looks like. People say, ‘Why aren’t there more women CEOs?’ and the answer, if you ask me, is because they don’t want to be—with a big but, because of how those jobs are currently defined.”

For those of us with experience and wisdom, Lean In came 25 years too late. When I ask women in their 40s and 50s how they feel about the book, many say “tired.” And I get it. We did lean in, and some of us fell over, which helps explain the resonance of Slaughter’s message.

But the women following behind us make me believe real change is possible. Angela Su is 25 and the lead buyer-planner for digital fashion startup Bombfell. She is successful, ambitious and, like so many of her generation, skeptical. “I strive hard to do well at my job, but toward what end?” she asks. “I guess to be happy or live a good life, but I’m still struggling to define what a good life means. Ambition is like the end goal, and that’s the kind of thing that I’m suddenly questioning. What am I being driven toward?”

Young men are skeptical too. If there is one thing Slaughter and Sandberg agree on, it’s that this is not just a women’s issue. In Unfinished Business, Slaughter cites a Harvard Business School study of more than 6,500 HBS grads that showed that modern men are more family-focused than ever before: a third of male millennials expect to split child care 50-50, compared with 22 percent of Gen X men and 16 percent of boomer men. In our poll, more than a quarter of men cited “flexible hours” and “supportive environment” as most important in their workplace. Slaughter’s husband Andrew Moravcsik, in the October issue of the Atlantic, argues that more men should become the “lead parent,” as he has. The “most fundamental reason for men to embrace a more egalitarian and open-ended distribution of family work,” he writes, “is that doing so can foster a more diverse and fulfilling life.” As the mother of three boys, I would be hopeful about our future if they channeled their ambition in such a way.

Because it’s up to their generation to push for that change: to groom men for lead-parenting jobs and women for the C-suite. And perhaps, someday, those two roles will not be mutually exclusive. “I’m attracted to the idea of being a CEO,” says Tara Raghuveer, a 2014 college graduate who is policy and advocacy director for the National Partnership for New Americans. “I’m also attracted to the idea of having an amazing family. There are all these different things that I consider part of my ambition.”

–WITH REPORTING BY CHARLOTTE ALTER/NEW YORK

This article originally appeared on TIME.