Career Woman

Why women don’t apply for leadership roles and what you can do about it


Gender diversity in leadership is an elephant sized problem around the world. Men and women want to solve this problem but there is no easy solution. Last year I was at a conference on diversity and I kept hearing the same thing: I want to hire more women, but women are not applying for senior leadership positions.

What is holding women back from taking on leadership roles? It’s complicated but one reason is that women have lost sight of their ambition. A 2017 survey found that nearly 2/3 of women would not take their boss’ job even if it was offered to them. It also found that 83% of women said they are somewhat or not really ambitious. A lot of women see leadership roles as a burden and don’t put their name forward for more challenging assignments. Many women even say no when leadership positions are offered to them.

Add in the fact that women take on more responsibility at home, don’t have female role models, are faced with a gender pay gap – it can feel hopeless.

Policy makers, employers, business leaders, the education system, government, families – each of these stakeholders has a role to play in solving this problem. But instead of waiting for them to figure it out we can do our part starting right now. We can start by understanding what drives our own ambition and support other women to do the same.

What causes us to lose our ambition?

Ambition is defined as ‘a strong desire to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work’. Women get stuck in the grind, the never ending to do lists, the meetings, the projects, the hours, all the things they need to accomplish just to get by at work. When you get stuck in the grind – the idea of taking on something more seems impossible – there just aren’t enough hours in the day. When you’re deep into the grind you can’t define what you’re striving for. You don’t know what that ‘something’ is that you’re putting in all the hard work for. If you can’t see the purpose of what you are doing, if you can’t even articulate what you are striving for – why would anyone want to take on more work? This is when a leadership role becomes a burden. This is why 2/3 of women don’t want their boss’ job.

One thing you can do for yourself and the women around you is to define your ‘something’. What are you striving for? What lights your fire? What gets you up in the morning? What’s the bigger picture? What are you contributing to? These are pretty big questions, but here is a simple exercise you can do to help you get a bit closer to defining your ‘something’. Think of a time when you were thriving professionally, you felt energized at work you felt confident, you were doing really well, you were in your element. Figure out what made you feel that way. Write down 3-5 words from your story that excite you. There is no wrong answer. When I do this exercise the words that come through for me are winning, adventure, collaboration. I did this exercise with a group of entrepreneurs. One of my client’s words was ‘2%’. For her this meant she wanted to be part of the 2% of female entrepreneurs that crack the million dollar mark in revenues. These are your words so they can be anything you want them to be. Once you know what drives your ambition, the next step is to figure out how you can add more of this to your work day. You don’t need to do this alone – meet with your supervisor or your co-workers to see what you can do in your current role, what stretch projects can you take on, committees you can join that will allow you to put your ambition to work.

Managers and bosses, be curious about what excites the women on your team. Ask them questions about what makes them thrive. Get to know what drives their ambition and fuel it. Put them on projects that excite them, help them to see the bigger picture.

Imagine a world where women are thriving at work and not feeling stuck in the grind. Women are feeling ambitious, they are asking for bigger assignments, striving for more and stepping up to lead. It is possible to close the gender leadership gap we have to start. One woman at a time.

About Andrea Janzen

Andrea Janzen is a Certified Executive Coach through Royal Roads University and an Associate Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation. I have an MBA from the Schulich School of Business at York University and a BBA from Wilfrid Laurier University. I spent 15 years managing P&L's through progressive marketing positions on brands like Werther's Original, Absolut Vodka and Canadian Tire.

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