One of my favourite quotes from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is, "No gate, no lock, no bolt on the freedom of my mind." It invites women to think big and to roam freely in their minds, without restriction. Thanks to that spirit, ambition, once viewed as the preserve of men, is no stranger to women.
Take one of my heroes, Phyllis Pearsall. Primarily an artist, Pearsall became frustrated when she could not find what she considered a decent map of London’s streets, so she set about making one, walking London to create what we now know as The A to Z. Had she not been ambitious and determined, the project might have come to nothing.
In a recent survey by My Confidence Matters, 85 per cent of women indicated that they were ambitious and interested in having a more senior role, but 79 per cent said that they lacked confidence on a regular basis. It is possible to be ambitious and to feel a lack of confidence. Wanting a promotion or a more challenging role is an aspiration.
Realising ambitious aspirations like getting a promotion takes courage, hard work and drive but it can still be delayed or thwarted when women’s aspirations are either disregarded or subject to organisational and societal bias. As Ibarra, Carter and Silver commented in their article for Harvard Business Review, "just when women are most likely to need sponsorship—as they shoot for the highest-level jobs—they may be least likely to get it. They’re still viewed as ‘risky’ appointments."
Many of the women surveyed by My Confidence Matters felt that they lacked confidence on a regular basis and wanted managers to do more to support them in their ambitions. For staff working in companies not offering the following services and support: 83 per cent wanted their organisations to offer coaching and mentoring, 80 per cent wanted leadership training skills development, 80 per cent wanted access to flexible working, 70 per cent wanted training in confident public speaking and 68 per cent wanted internal sponsorship to be offered. Such support could help many more women realise their ambitions and distribute senior positions more evenly by gender.
Two shocking statistics from the World Economic Forum demonstrate the need to improve support, training and development for women: that, at the current rate of change, it will take 108 years to close the global gender pay gap, and 202 years to achieve economic gender parity.
That trajectory has to change and rapidly. It will not change unless employers, society, educators, organisations - indeed all of us - commit to genuine equality and encourage women to realise their ambitions. I have signed my pledge at 2020actions.com. What action will you take to narrow the gap?
5 top tips for ambitious women
1. Visualise your ambition, in some detail and at length.
2. Write it all down.
3. Plan. Use a timeline and break it into manageable chunks.
4. Ask. Keep asking about opportunities and support that might be available within and outside your organisation.
5. Reach out to someone less senior to you or at your level who might also be looking for opportunities. Be honest about your own ambition. Plan together and encourage each other.
Dr Geraldine Perriam is honorary research associate at the University of Glasgow.
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Image from A Room of One's Own (Otbebookpublishing - Kindle edition)