Leave the fantasies of a life-changing promotion to the naive heroines of hokey rom-coms and cheesy network sitcoms. Most working women, it turns out, don’t get starry-eyed over the prospect of a leap up the career ladder. When Chatelaine asked 1,000 women across Canada between the ages of 35 and 45 about work, ambition and if they wanted their boss’s job, a resounding 64 percent replied, “No, thanks.”
If you’re tempted to worry that this means women are losing the plot, career-wise, or suffering from a lack of confidence and ambition, don’t. Given the way we work now — constantly, and with less job security than our parents and grandparents enjoyed — experts aren’t surprised that many women think taking on more responsibility isn’t worth the headache.
“Organizations are demanding a lot more of their workers, without a whole lot of recognition or loyalty on the employers’ part,” explains Sylvia Fuller, associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia.
Wise to the cultural shift in the work environment, women are looking around them and trying to square the realities of the modern workplace with their own life goals. And what they’re seeing is about as appealing as a room full of rejected suitors from The Bachelorette.
“They’re observing their bosses work long hours for little reward,” says Melanie Peacock, a workplace expert and HR professor at Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business in Calgary. “You might get financial rewards but there isn’t long-term security or stability.”
In a less secure, more invasive work culture — the ubiquity of email means that few of us ever really feel off-the-clock — it’s natural that the psychological stakes associated with moving up the chain change, too. “People are starting to rethink what it means to work and that psychological contract with the employer,” says Peacock. “This is a lot deeper than just wanting [or not wanting] your boss’s job.”
Once calculated, the return on investment — the extra hours spent working and managing others and the greater scrutiny from senior management — may fall into the negative column. A woman who is now a VP in her company once joked to Peacock that her hourly rate actually went down when she took the role.
It’s possible that the results of Chatelaine’s survey may reflect a more fluid definition of ambition, too. A series of studies done by researchers at Harvard Business School found that, generally speaking, women don’t hold the same positive view of corporate ascension as their male counterparts do. Tellingly, it’s not that they think such power is beyond them — they know it’s within their grasp — they just don’t see it as the be-all and end-all of their overall life goals.
Other factors may be at play, too, says Jennifer Moss, Waterloo, Ont.-based author of Unlocking Happiness at Work, and the co-founder of Plasticity Labs, a tech company that teaches organizations how to increase employee contentment. Not everyone wants to manage other people, says Moss, and those who, through years of work and discipline, have mastered their role may be loath to sacrifice the happiness they derive from that proficiency for a “better” job.
Corporations that observe hierarchies, she adds, may be better served by considering customized leadership roles or structures rather than following a prescribed approach.
Ultimately, for Peacock and Moss, the survey results point to the need for a larger conversation about moving toward a more fruitful and satisfying work-life integration.
Says Peacock: “We need more data.”