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Study finds executive women are just as, if not more, ambitious than men

In the debate over why more women don't reach the corner office, fingers have long pointed to many culprits.

Companies don't offer enough work-life balance or family-friendly policies, prompting women to take time off that derails their careers. Women don't negotiate enough for the promotions they deserve. Other women, the conventional wisdom goes, lean back or opt out, lacking the drive or the willingness to make the personal sacrifices needed to reach the most demanding jobs at the top.

But a new global survey of executives by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company finds the last of those is not necessarily the case. The survey of 1,421 global executives, which was released Jan. 23, finds that roughly the same ratio of male and female executives in the survey (83 percent versus 82 percent) have the desire to reach a top management position.

It also found that more women (83 percent) than men (74 percent) said they have a strong desire to advance to the next level of their organizations.

The survey results, says Sandrine Devillard, a director in McKinsey's Paris office, show that "female executives are ambitious and sure of their ability to succeed. There really is no difference. We were so flabbergasted by this because it’s so counter to common wisdom."

The results also show that a majority of the women surveyed (especially those who work in environments that engender confidence that women can get ahead), are perfectly willing to sacrifice their personal lives, ask for promotions and promote their ambitions to others.

The findings are particularly striking because of the dwindling pool of executives — men or women — who are willing to become CEOs, says Valerie Germain, a managing partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. She says that as the pressures of the job have increased, the pool of people wiling to take on the chief executive role has been shrinking in recent years, however rich the rewards may be.

"We have a meaningful leadership issue, from a talent perspective, of people who actually desire to move up the ranks all the way to become CEOs," Germain says.

Devillard says a lack of ambition has become linked to the dearth of female leaders at the top because, all too often, the raw career hopes of female leaders aren't decoupled from the environments in which they work. "Factually, we do witness women opting out," she says. "Women do compromise with jobs that aren't as much as they could do. But it's not because they lack ambition. It's because they don't have confidence in the system in which they work."

To that end, McKinsey's survey shows sharp differences in how male and female executives view women as leaders and also the challenges women face on the job. For instance, more than 90 percent of survey respondents (of both genders) said they believe women can lead just as well as men, yet female respondents were far more likely to strongly agree with the statement.

Women were also far more likely than men to perceive the obstacles women face in climbing the corporate ladder as a problem. Sixty-three percent of women in the survey, compared with just 19 percent of men, strongly agreed that women have far more difficulty reaching top management positions, even if they have equal skills and qualifications as men. Meanwhile, male respondents were far more likely to say that having too many gender-diversity initiatives is unfair to men.

In addition, 95 percent of women said they see the benefit of gender diversity efforts at their companies, yet just 84 percent of men do. However ambitious women may be, Devillard says, they are "far less confident that their company’s culture can support their rise."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

A snapshot of women in leadership positions

The science of getting women on boards

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