Do women really want the top job?
As a top ad executive is criticised for saying women lack ambition, Tanya Sweeney asks our high-flyers if he has a point
In recent times, women have come a long way. The UK now has a no-nonsense female prime minister, while the frontrunner for the US presidential race is also a woman (in a fun twist, several headlines from last week's Democratic National Convention ran thus: 'Hillary Clinton's Husband Wears a Fetching Pantsuit to Honour Her').
Yet for every step ambitious women take, there is always someone trying to keep them in their place. Step forward this week's someone, Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts. While his own sector - advertising - hasn't yet achieved gender parity in leadership roles, Roberts believes the gender diversity issue in advertising is essentially 'over'. "Their ambition is not a vertical ambition," he said by way of defense. "It's this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy."
His comments met a hostile reception: so frosty, in fact, that he has been placed on leave of absence at work. Outmoded though his mindset may seem, is there any ring of truth to his observation? Do women place more importance on work-life balance than they do on reaching the pinnacle of their careers?
There is no shortage of Irish women who certainly appear ambitious. Women are, after all, in positions of seniority in a staggering number of global giants in Ireland. To name just a few: Cathriona Hallahan became MD of Microsoft Ireland in 2013; Louise Phelan runs the Irish arm of PayPal as VP of Global Operations; Anne O'Leary is CEO of Vodafone Ireland, Google's director of ads policy ops is Kathryn O'Donoghue, while Regina Moran is CEO of Fujitsu Ireland. Yet the gender pay gap in Ireland is still significant: women in Ireland are paid 14pc less than men (an increase from 12.6pc in 2009). According to EU statistics published in October 2013, Irish women make up just 10.5pc of board members of the largest publicly listed companies in Ireland, significantly below the EU average of 18.6pc.
Female representation on Irish State boards is better, at 36.2pc. A survey published by Catalyst in January shows that just one in 10 directors of Irish publicly listed companies are women. Add to this the grim reality that only 22.2pc of TDs in Dáil Eireann are women (the highest ever number in history), and suddenly the picture starts to look a little more complex. Somewhere in the middle of all this data, presumably, lies the truth.
Historically, considering oneself an ambitious woman was fraught with peril. According to PR guru Terry Prone, the mindset has endured somewhat.
"When I'm preparing women for job interviews or promotion interviews, the one question that stops 98pc of them in their tracks is 'Would you describe yourself as ambitious?'" she reveals. "Two per cent happily answer that they're hugely ambitious. The rest hesitate while they try to gauge what's the right answer, knowing - as they do - that to describe a woman as 'very ambitious, you know' is to condemn her as a mad driven bitch who'd leave her track marks on your face."
Kirstie McDermott is editor of 'Stellar' magazine, and works with what she describes as a team of dynamic, wholly ambitious women.
"(Roberts) is a bit of a dinosaur… and with men like that, pale, male and stale, you can't expect him to know what young women want or feel. I know from my own experience, when you first encounter that institutional sexism, you sidestep it and don't bother.
"At 'Stellar', the team is ambitious not to get a great product out every month, but they're ambitious in a wider sense, to learn new skills all the time."
Margot Slattery, MD of Sodexo Ireland (a company that signed Ireland's first Diversity Charter) is in staunch disagreement with Roberts' viewpoint on women and ambition.
"My views are personal, but I certainly don't share that same opinion," she says. "What I see is that of course women want to have a more rounded perspective in their lives, but there's no lack of ambition on their part. My experience is that in the last number of years, gentlemen have as much a wish for a work-life balance as women," she adds. "Workplace equality has been good for both genders. There's a good sense of fairness here, and we're seeing people at various part of their lives that want or need to take a step back in work. I see male colleagues, for instance, going through a situation where they need to look after parents. In a decade's time, our definition of success will be seen as radically different. Our lives will be much more rounded because of it."
Of course, while several men may indeed take leave of absence to care for parents, or even children, the narrative that women fall (or readily) jump off the career ladder to undertake childcare is the dominant, more visible one.
"We're at a point where the Government need to step in and think of the pressure put on families by the workplace," asserts McDermott. "A lot of this is still falling on women. I think there might be a self-imposed 'glass ceiling'. Some women have kids in quick succession because their biological clock dictates that. And women who try to get back into the workforce in their mid to late 40s are met with hungry, younger types with years ahead of them. Little wonder that work might become less compelling."
"Let's not forget the hidden implication that if you don't take at least a year's maternity leave, your child will show the marks of your neglect," adds Prone. "Why is it always women who are burdened with the task of controlling their ambitions? It takes two to tango and to make a marriage/partnership."
And while Sodexo has equality embedded in the organisation, corporate culture - for perhaps the very reason that childcare is still seen as a wholly female preserve - is still slightly suspicious of women who want to make their way to the top.
"I think that (way of thinking) is still there," notes Slattery. "It's probably less pervasive than it has been but you can see it even with Hillary Clinton, with people judging her on her manner."
Little wonder, then, that for all our ambitions, the issue for women in the workplace isn't competence, but confidence.
"Women don't have those same advantages - the networking opportunities, the mentors - that men have enjoyed for years," says McDermott.
"There's sexism evident in publishing," notes Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Tramp Press. "From being told by men that they don't see why they should read female writers, to being advised that a work of literary fiction by a woman would be a particularly tough sell, our experiences have been wonderfully varied.
"There's one way of tackling problems in the industry and that's to try to become a decision-maker from within it. Acquiring leadership positions might be the single most effective way women can call a halt to sexism in business.
"In the meantime, I think it's safe to assume this much - we don't like to be told what we want, or what we should aspire to."
Says Paula Fitzsimons, founder/director of Going For Growth, a peer-led initiative that matches female entrepreneurs with others further along in their careers: "When it comes to applying for jobs, women won't go for a job unless she ticks every box, while many men will go in with half the job requirements. With women, it's definitely a confidence thing."
As evidence by the vast swathe of women in positions of power, that mindset is slowly ebbing from public view. Also shapeshifting before our very eyes, is Roberts' antiquated definition of success.
More people are starting to see time, not money, as the world's premium currency, and as such, a healthy work-life balance is seen more and more as an aspirational ideal. Roberts' vision of worker drones burning the midnight oil until they reach the top of the heap is becoming less and less relevant. And the powerful in business - men and women alike - are questioning this model.
Happiness, flexibility and working conditions that allow people to balance the stress of the workplace with family, friends and passions are now what the truly successful strive for. Those fixated on the top of the greasy pole are missing an awful lot on the way up.
But for now, the idea that men are corporate ballbreakers who are most at home in the boardroom and women are, as Roberts says, more interested in a life beyond the boardroom, is damaging to everyone.
"Women are realists, and happiness and balance is very important to them," says McDermott. "Similarly, I think it vastly underrates men to say that they don't value happiness in the same way that women do."
"In some women, the desire to be happy and create happiness comes ahead of the desire to set up and head a global business," surmises Prone. "Because you know what? Women are an interesting and infinitely diverse bit of the human race."