Are women less ambitious than men?

For our personal careers and the feminising veterinary profession as a whole this is an important question. To re-dress many of the issues around gender inequality women have to WANT to be progressing, earning and leading – and often moreso than men in order to break through gender bias barriers. So what is holding us back?

We have just passed the 100th anniversary of the first admission of a woman to the veterinary profession. The start of a new year – indeed a new decade – is a good time to stop and reflect on the achievements of the past, and to think about where we see ourselves in 2030. In a vocational profession working life will play a significant role for most of us. Our profession is rapidly feminising, with approximately 85% female ratio in vet schools, 60% vets in practice and yet only a small percentage in the top jobs as head of practices or managerial roles. Why?

Is ambition a dirty word for women?

Is this purely a case of women having less desire to take on these roles as career and life progress? Or are extrinsic factors such as other demands on our resources or lack of opportunity holding us back? To realise ambition requires both mastery of skills, and recognition of this mastery. Yet a Harvard Business Review article in 2004 discussed the reticence of women to speak about ambition in relation to their careers. Women linked the word itself to undesirable traits such as narcissism, self-promotion and ego – often at the expense of others. In contrast, men spoke about ambition as noble, natural and healthy. It argued the subconscious tendency for women to subordinate recognition in favour of others (particularly men) is deep rooted in societal norms. Yet without recognition of skills it is harder to progress up the ladder.

Do women lack the balls for ambition?

After the release of the 2018 SPVS salary survey the comments of the then SPVS President, Peter Brown, inflamed the debate around the existence of the gender pay gap by quoting from the HBR article, questioning the ambitiousness of women.  His comments were more about asking the question – which, to my knowledge no-one has in a robust manner in our profession – than suggesting outright that this was a significant factor in the persistence of gender discrepancy. Coincidentally, around the same time I had run a brief online survey of 162 vets – 37% said their career ambition had reduced over time, 29% said it was unchanged, and only 9% had increased career ambition. For those whose career ambitions had decreased, the reasons given included loss of confidence, compromising for spouse, family time, stress, disillusionment, change of passion and discrimination. (Respondents were predominantly female, but answers were not controlled for gender).

The question here was specifically about career ambition. Notably, 28% said their ambitions outside of their career had increased. Our responsibilities in other areas of our lives tend to increase as our career progresses. These can include caring for parents or children, societal issues (from local community issues to global concerns), running and maintaining a household, financial planning, and self-care including hobbies, exercise, and a healthy diet. Many of us also pursue alternative careers either alongside part-time or locum veterinary work. So rather than ambition decreasing in women mid-career, I would argue ambition is split between many different targets – a sort of ambition dilution. Herein lies a problem. As Simon Sinek wisely said if we have more than three priorities we have none at all – we simply cannot spread ourselves thinly and achieve what we would like in all areas. This can lead to disillusionment in the face of perfectionism, stifling our progression.

Solutions to ambition dilution

So, how do we balance the multiple demands on our time and resource with achieving our ambitions in life and work?

Getting help is a good place to start; delegating more to a partner, getting a cleaner, increasing childcare or elderly care, enlisting the help of others. Here is where micro-management can rob us – we have to able to delegate and trust others. Perfectionism is not a virtue here and good enough should be good enough.

Mapping out our time and goals – it may be some aspects of life have to be shelved or time-limited for a period (such as my lack of social life when the kids were babies!). I have also made the mistake of being too ambitious and taking on too many projects I simply didn’t have time for. Be proactive in scheduling time for self-care / work / family / admin and cleaning etc. Regularly reassess and re-apportion time according to the varying demands on each of these areas.

Facilitating flexible working, including job-shares for leadership roles will increase accessibility of these roles to busy women juggling multiple priorities and demands on time. Flexible paths to specialism would also help a number of women who feel that once they’ve started a family the road through residency programs is closed to them.

Find some support – our ability to gain clarity on our path and bolster confidence can be assisted greatly by coaching. The internal voice that reminds of us of our limitations and advises caution in life needs an external counter voice, able to see past our mental blockade and open a world of possibility that is well within our grasp if only we saw it. This may involve engaging the services of a life coach or simply listening to the counsel of trusted friends and family. In my case, both have been invaluable. The tribe of women I have around me to encourage and mentor have helped to enlarge my vision of possibilities, and increased my confidence to act.

Advocate for women – we also need to advocate for and promote one another. Women often shy away from recognition, which is an essential part of achieving ambition. We also tend to underestimate our abilities and ‘do ourselves down’. By championing fellow women, confidence is boosted and others are more likely to take notice. I have heard several women in top jobs saying (I’m paraphrasing), ‘I never even thought to apply – I thought it was beyond me – but a friend told me I was the perfect fit and should go for it, so I did’.

Be patient – For now, it may be a case of biding our time and honing our skills through the busy phases, to emerge later in life for a career revival. As Isak Dinesen proclaimed, “Women…when they are old enough to have done with the business of being a woman, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.” That’s provided we’re not exhausted by that stage!

Ambitions for the profession in the 2020’s

So, my question to each of us at the start of 2020 is are we happy with the current status quo of our day (or night) job and our profession? If the answer is yes, I would argue this does not mean we’ve lost vision, drive and determination, but that external factors may be diverting our energies for now. For ambition to thrive we need to focus on priorities, believe in our ability, and seek appropriate help, support and mentorship to both develop and realise our goals.

The future of leadership in the profession requires a decade of developing these support networks and encouragement, helping women to realise their strengths and facilitating ambition within a flexible working model. All very doable. With the right mechanisms and support in place to enable women to put more of their resources into professional life, I have no doubt the embers of ambition can be fanned into flame. Only then will the gender imbalances at the top be redressed.

Further reading:

Women in veterinary leadership positions: their motivations and enablers

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