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Women Feel Less Ambitious, Says Survey

Vivia Chen

November 6, 2011

WomanDrinkingBefore you read on, I'd suggest that you pour yourself some whiskey. Or bourbon. Or gin. Or whatever it takes to make bad news go down a bit easier.

If you're a female lawyer (or aspiring to be), you might be wasting your energy on the wrong endeavor. In fact, if you're gunning for any high-paying, high-profile job in a male-dominated field, you might as well put the brakes on right now. Not only are your odds of success remote, but you won't be happy.

That's seems to be the message at the moment. In More magazine's latest survey of 500 women (all had college or higher degrees), ages 35 to 60, the news is that women are getting less and less ambitious:

In the search for balance, women are sacrificing ambition. When asked point-blank, 43 percent of women described themselves as less ambitious now than they were ten years ago; only 15 percent reported feeling more ambitious.

The survey gets even more discouraging:

These women want to work . . . they just don't want to advance. A full 73 percent say they would not apply for their boss's job. Why? Thirty-eight percent say they don't want the politics, pressure, and responsibility.

What women really value, reports More, is flexibility. Ninety-two percent say that's their top priority. "It's about control over how you work," explains More deputy editor Jennifer Braunschweiger. "It could be a more compressed schedule, being able to break during the day to take care of other things." She emphasizes, though, "it's not about working less or going part-time."

Look, I totally get the flexibility thing. I'm a huge proponent of job flexibility. But what I find discouraging is that women seem to have thrown in the towel on going for the top spots. Is it that impossible to have flexibility and corporate success? Are women completely discouraged about making it in man's world?

Seems that way. In More's list of top ten careers for women "who want a life," law (not surprisingly) didn't make the cut. So what was on the "good" list? Jobs that allowed women to go solo--like being a personal financial adviser, Web professional, accountant, public relations consultant, or a technical or Web writer.

I'm all for entrepreneurial careers. But here's what I found really jolting: Most of the other recommended careers are already female ghettos. That's particularly true in the health care field, where the "good" jobs are dental hygienist, nurse, and doctor's assistant. (Interestingly, medicine allows greater work/life balance than law and finance, according to a Harvard study.) Also on the top ten list are jobs where women have already staked a claim—physical and occupational therapist, and social worker.

Don't get me wrong—these jobs are all valuable to our society. It just saddens me that women are counting themselves out as leaders and bosses in the bigger world. The way I read it, the More survey suggests only two viable routes for women--either go out on your own, or be a helper to the (male) movers and shakers.

Braunschweiger tells me she prefers to see it in a more hopeful light. "It's a wake-up call to the American workplace," she says. "There will be a talent crunch unless companies change the workplace."

Gee, I'd like to believe her.

Related post: Sober Up, Then Have a Stiff One.

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This article is really skewed. I have no doubt that a survey of men would yield the same results. Of course people are less ambitious between ages 35-60 than when they were younger, for many obvious reasons. New college or professional school graduates are generally young, full of energy, and impatient to put their academic skills to work in the real world, as well as brimming over with the need to go out and conquer the world. However, as time goes by, they are forced to modify their dreams once they start to deal with the real world and things don't always go their way, and they run up against the cold harsh reality that they have no real experience and cannot immediately take the world by storm and become an instant C.E.O. or head partner at age 25. Mental and physical energy naturally decline over time as a result of the aging process. New graduates also tend to be single and childless, while older workers are more likely to have family responsibilities to which they would rather turn their attention, as opposed to being 100% focused on work. In addition, one bright spot is that seasoned workers usually have achieved at least some of their goals; hence they can relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor, as opposed to only being focused on striving for more. So, Ms. Chen, while I certainly do not dispute that occupational sexism and the glass ceiling are still serious problems, you are focused on a red herring and something that is essentially an imaginary problem. I wish you would go about a more constructive way of addressing the real problems rather than blaming women for being normal human beings.

I'm surprised at the underlying hypocrisy of this article, particularly coming from a former corporate attorney who found alternative career satisfaction as a blogger.

It seems to me that the problem of this article is its single minded definition of "success" and the fact that it perpetuates the error committed by the original survey: i.e. measuring women with a measuring stick designed by men in all-men environments.

"Ambition" it's a loaded term which, like the rules of succeeding in law firms, has historically been defined by men.

Women are NOT less ambitious, women are less interested in following the traditional ambitions of men, which is different.

This article fails to see what it should be obvious: that women measure personal satisfaction differently than men and, consequently, are redefining their own concept of success, as it should be.

Berating them for doing it's condescending.

Bemoaning womens' "lack of ambition," while extolling the benefits of flexibility is inconsistent and hypocritical. Many ultra-driven, overly ambitious people, both male and female, are total psychos whose entire identiy is tied to their career success. This is particuarly true amongst lawyers. And no matter how successful they may become, many are miserable and have forgotten, or never knew, how to enjoy life. As a junior associate in a major NYC firm that had 103 partners at the time (20 years ago), there was only ONE who I ever wanted ot emulate. Why? Because he seemed happy! Ultimately, careers are about two things -- first, feeding your family; secondly, being HAPPY! That more and more women (apparently) are content to find happiness through a balanced approach to life/career, could be viewed negatively only by a radical feminist, deluded by the fallacy that the income and power disparities between men and women are the product of invidious discrimination. More simply, no one can have it both ways, Vivia, no matter how unfair you may find that trusim!

Are you sure it's a case of "less ambition" and not a case of resignation?

A recent Forbes article dated June 20, 2011 states that although the number of women attending law school has been close to 50% since the mid-80s, only 15% of equity partners in firms are women.

I disagree totally that this is lack of ambition. It is due in part to the "up and out" structure of law firms that require you to have $500k to $1m in client revenue due to clients you have personally developed.

It is also due to the fact that many women (and law associates in general) have no business development training and never had an alternative professional career prior to law that allowed them to develop a potential client base to begin with.

Currently, many are either left behind if they take time off to have children, or passed over if they have no business. Working thousands of hours 7 years straight just pleasing partners and clients and never learning how to develop business leaves many talented female attorneys getting a pink slip and they can't get back into many firms.

Law firms should let experienced women attorneys, who are willing to put in the extensive time and effort to learn business development skills and go out with other partners to get business, back into the game and provide business development training and support.

I advocate taking responsibility early on (pre-law school) of getting executive sales and business development training and developing an alternative career persona so one's career will be bulletproofed.

See my further recommendations at:


I do agree, however, with the belief that in this dismal economy many people, men and women, are less ambitious because to fixate on dreams when they may not even be able to find jobs would drive them crazy.

But grave disparities based on gender still exist and must be addressed. For example, there will never be decent, widely available daycare until more working women demand it. To have that, you have to have a certain number of women in the workplace with clout and money. As long as wealthy women can hire nannies it's not going to happen.

Finally, quitting work to raise your kids is a privilege, not a right.

I agree, this is an extremely disturbing trend. In the women themselves, and in society. Expect less and you will definitely get less. The self-delusion is the most troubling. I'm reminded of the nonsense about how women were "opting out" of careers (at least middle class white women were).

They were being pushed out and they weren't pushing back. They caved. When the women with the best options don't make the most of them in part in an effort to improve society, who will?

I suspect this is part of the bigger trend (among male and female alike) of more work-life balance. I'm in my late 30s and my friends overwhelmingly not interested in having their boss' job because the boss sacrified family and/or personal interests for career. In my opinion, this is a good trend.

OK, Judith, maybe there's no difference between the sexes on your planet, but here on Earth ...

Albert, testosterone is the reason the world was built. Don't knock it by calling it "overload." It might be appropriate to call it "overload" if a couple of guys get into a fight over a girl; not when its the reason we have an advanced society in the first place. Without testosterone, we'd be out picking berries to survive.

Just because I don't want my boss' job doesn't mean I don't have ambition. It just means I don't have any interest in the administrative aspects of the job thats held by my boss (office managing partner).

I'm also curious if the study corrected for the terrible economy, and the seniority of the women. Ten years ago was the heyday of the Dot Com era, we all thought the sky was the limit. Plus, 10 years ago I had much more specific ambitions (make partner). These days, as a fairly senior partner, I guess I'm less ambitious. I want to snag the interesting client, but I no longer am gunning for partnership.

The assumption about "differences between the sexes" causing these results is not at all supported by the data. (Also known as: Dirk Johanson, Albert Saks, your bias is showing.)

Interesting article and comments. I attended an OSB event last Friday called Convocation on Equality, which explored issues similar to that addressed in the article including non-white attorneys (male or female). I noted, with interests, that the most vocal participants in the convocation appeared to be white and male, who continue to set the norm. Whether by training, tradition or stereotype, their standard continues to be the one by which others are measured. As a solo patent attorney, who happens to be an African American and female, I am certain that I have the ambition and skill to participate in biglaw; however, I made the decision that there are other ways to fulfill my career goals and be happy. Sound like many others have done so too and hence, to some extent, the Occupy Wallstreet movement and the call for redistribution of wealth.

I agree with Michael that a survey of men would likely yield similar results, and would guess that a majority of men would also say they would not want their boss's job. Why? Because most people do not want the hassles of being a leader and would rather leave the stress to someone else.

As for being less ambitious after 10 years of work, that is not surprising (and I'm sure the numbers would be similar for men as for women). After a few years of working and interacting with junior partners at large law firms, I saw what their lives were like - horrible. I have never seen a more miserable bunch of people - no family life or work/life balance to speak of, life completely dominated by clients and firm politics, and on top of that, huge pressure to bring in business. After working for a few years seeing their lives, why would you want their jobs?

For those women and men who aim for the top and put in the work to get there, go for it!! But there is also nothing wrong with the majority of people who would rather stay working as the non-boss so they have more flexibility and time to spend with their families.

I also wonder whether the tendency for more men to become law firm partners (or other types of business leaders) also stems from men's "traditional" sense of responsibility to provide for the household. Do men feel more pressure to stay at work and bring home the steady paycheck that comes from the higher levels of corporate work, even if they find their work completely unfulfilling? (Or do they actually find corporate/law firm work fulfilling?) And do women feel less pressure to do this, which opens them up to do things that are more entrepreneurial? (Or, ultimately, are women less willing to put up with work that is unfulfilling, and are they more likely to be willing to make less money to have work that is more fulfilling?) To me, those are more interesting questions instead of feeling despondent asking why more women don't want to throw their lives away working 100 hour weeks as partners at large law firms.

The thing to really be despondent about is why we don't place more value on "traditional" women's work (like those "female ghettos" you mention - health care, teaching, etc.) Maybe our real focus should be making sure people in those extremely important positions are adequately compensated for the valuable work that they do.

Wow, this is like ground zero for confirmation bias and fallacious conclusions. From what I can see I need my thought process to work like this:

(Insert any unappealing statistically derived data point here), therefore this "man's world" is keeping women down -- how unfair.

Speaking as a male, I do not understand your despondency at the survey results. If a majority of women choose work balance over advancement or power, so be it. Ambition and power, though historically the purview of the male gender (whether as a result of gender bias or testosterone overkill), is simply not the end all of life. Just maybe the majority of women have it right—you know, about work/life balance and all. I bet that if cultural pressures were otherwise, and working less and earning less were not symbols of failure, plenty of men would have long ago abandoned the advancement jungle.

I don't get this, frankly. I'm the mother of a one year old, and a newly minted law firm partner (I was up the year I was pregnant). I'm 33, and I don't want my boss' job, I want HIS boss's job (chair of the firm, a position held by a woman currently). I work for a big firm, bill 2000 hours a year, and I love my job and am completely smitten by everything my little boy does. It's not true that, for every woman or even women generally, less ambition automatically translates into more time with family and more happiness or vice versa. For women who make this choice, I am happy you have the choice to make, which is all equality should mean anyway. But posing it as a "be ambitious or be happy" choice just isn't true.


Here's how I see it, as a senior associate gunning for partnership during the next go-round: As far as I can tell, obtaining partnership is like winning a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. (That analogy is not original to me, but it sums it up nicely.) I'm drowning in work-related responsibilities now; partnership, to me, means adding more committees, more meetings, more everything-I-can-barely-manage-now. I think some ambivalence about that prospect is quite rational.

Are you suggesting that women lawyers *cannot* go solo?

This is an interesting post.

I do think there is a cultural shift going on. I think it used to be that as women were demanding equality in the workplace, there was an expectation that women should reach for the top. Because why not? Women should utilize their full potential, and that potential is equal to that of their male counterparts. It was looked on as shameful when women bowed out, or decided to quit or stay at home.

As a woman that has done just that (quit a law firm to stay at home), I think the culture is shifting a bit. As the workplace is becoming more and more demanding and less flexible, women are realizing that they shouldn't chase ambition for ambition's sake. Maybe happiness should factor in, and we don't owe society our lives and time at the expense of our happiness.

For me, I do plan to go back to work eventually. But much like your article suggests, I don't want to climb to the top and have all the pressure and stress that goes along with that. I want to have a simpler life - one where I can contribute, make money, but also spend time with my family. And if that means I won't make as much money, or won't have the status that comes with a high powered position, that is just fine with me.


I think you hit it on the mark. Women are getting tired of beating their heads against the wall. Women are just as ambitious as men. It's just when they are ambitious, it usually gets labeled aggressive (and not in a good way). Unless you're lucky and your male boss likes you, in which case you're labeled passionate.

Maybe they were tired when they took the survey? Did you read the NY Times article about the lack of sleep new mothers endure?

Is it possible that a survey of men would yield the same results? Heck, count me among the "less ambitious now than they were ten years ago," given the state of the economy.

I'm beside myself with the absurd conclusions being drawn by this article? Did anyone really think that, at age 35, women are more ambitious than at 25? That at age 60, they are more ambitious than at 50?

That having been said, the fact that 73% don't want their boss' job sums up one of the major differences between the sexes that explains why guys have always been more successful - and always will. While you'd never know it by the way women complain, guys tend to be ambitious, women not so much.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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