Women at work: Study finds drop in ambition

Previously, I've written about how workplace flexibility is a growing priority for working women, allowing them to climb the corporate ladder while giving birth to and raising children. And recently, a survey conducted by More magazine found that 40 percent of women said they'd take less money for more flexibility. Yet as my colleague Kimberly Weisul mentioned in her summary of the survey, 30 percent of those same women described asking for that flexible schedule as "career suicide". Not exactly encouraging to working moms, is it?

The fact that 43 percent of these women (ages 35 to 60) considered themselves less ambitious than they were a decade ago is a little less surprising to me -- merely because I think that, over time, women realize that a reasonable work-life balance is a worthy goal. (I think this would also be true for many men, as well.) To dig a little deeper into these results, I spoke with Jennifer Braunschweiger, deputy editor of More.

Here's what she says about the study's results.

Were you surprised that more women seem to be rejecting the corner office?

"We were surprised that so many women described themselves as less professionally ambitious than they were 10 years ago. But [the results] also said that women who want a career and a life are ambitious in a different way. That's what's interesting -- valuing time over money may signal a shift in ambition, and the beginning of a more nuanced definition of success, one that takes into account the many facets of a woman's life."

How has the economy contributed to this shift?

"It certainly made a dent [in ambition]. Ambition is in some ways a response to opportunity, and the economy took away a lot of opportunity. Some women lost their jobs. Others still have jobs, but are given more work and less support with which to do it. Also, women may have seen their female bosses devote everything to a career, only to get laid off. We hope that women's professional ambition will return as the economy improves."

Do you think these stats would hold true for women under 35?

"We didn't survey women under 35 so we can't speak for them. However, in many ways, this decline in ambition may be less about age and more about the demands of a specific life stage. You don't have to be over 35 in order to experience conflict between your career, your kids, your marriage, your elderly parents and your own interests. And you don't have to be over 35 to decide that the sacrifices made by the female CEO of your company are not for you."

Your study found that politics, pressure and responsibility cause women in your age group to shy away from pushing for top spots. Why do you think this is?

"We asked women if they would want their boss's job -- 73% said no, and those were among the reasons they could choose from. We don't know exactly how women are interpreting those terms. But the emotion behind them is clear. Over and over, we hear women say, "It's just not worth it." Technology has tethered us to the office, the recession has made the workplace more pressured and less stable -- and some women are finding the rewards don't outweigh the drawbacks."

What are some of the effects of lowered female ambition, for both women and the corporate world?

"The decline in women's professional ambition is not a good thing, for a number of reasons. Numerous studies have shown that companies with more women in leadership positions are more profitable, so American business needs women at top levels to stay competitive. In addition, the Boomers are retiring and Generation X has many fewer people. That will lead to a talent crunch. In order to attract and retain leadership talent, businesses will have to find ways to make top jobs attractive to women. One key way to do that is by offering increased flexibility. Women told us they don't want to work less--but they do want more control over how they work."

More on Moneywatch:

  • Amy Levin-Epstein On Twitter»

    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.