Could differences in how women and men articulate ambition early in their careers play a role in determining what opportunities come their way? This question has been haunting me for the last few weeks as the result of a series of in-depth interviews I’ve been conducting with high-profile female law partners around the U.S. The interviews are part of a larger project aimed at helping firms better understand why successful female partners stay — in contrast to the more frequently pondered question of why they leave. I’m interested in the positive side of the equation. What motivates and inspires women to stick to the arduous path to partnership? What opportunities and relationships may prove pivotal to their wholehearted engagement and success?
Although my study focused specifically on the legal sector, I believe the potential significance of what I’m learning about the articulation of ambition has wider implications. It may in fact help shed light on the conundrum of why women continue to be poorly represented in top leadership positions in organizations in almost every sector.
In the 1990s, it was assumed that simply hiring large numbers of women would eventually right the balance. Once more women were in the pipeline, they would quite naturally rise to the top. But things didn’t turn out that way. Although many organizations have been hiring women aggressively for nearly a generation, the proportion in top positions has only modestly expanded. This disproportion is noticeable in law firms, where with few exceptions women today comprise approximately 18 percent of equity partners, despite firms hiring women at near 50 percent for most of this century. (Here’s the most up-to-date data from the American Bar Association [pdf].)
One of the first interviews I did for the project ignited my curiosity about the role that articulating ambition might play in positioning women for future success. I was speaking with a litigation partner who holds a senior management position in an Am Law top 20 firm and who represents several of the firm’s most significant global clients. Because she graduated from one of the country’s most prestigious law schools, I asked if she’d joined the firm with the intention of making partner.
“Not really,” she responded. “I didn’t really think about it. To start with, I wasn’t sure I’d be with the firm that long. I didn’t know if I’d like the work or if it would suit me. So how could I possibly know if I would want to stay? Basically, I thought of the firm as a good place to launch from.”
Her commitment grew during her first few years because she enjoyed and felt challenged by the work and liked and felt valued by the people she worked with. She also found she was very good at what she did, which made her feel as if she was in the right place. “I got a lot of positive feedback — from clients, judges, and partners I worked with. That really motivated me. I’ve always been motivated by good feedback — it’s why I worked hard to get good grades.”
In other words, it was the actual experience of work that engaged her, rather than the desire to reach a specific goal. “It was never about position,” she said. But by her fifth year with the firm, she very much wanted to be partner, both because she knew she could do it and because she wanted to be acknowledged for doing high-quality work. She recognized that her wait-and-see-if-I-like-it approach contrasted with the attitude of many of her male colleagues, who broadcast their determination to make partner from the day they arrived.
She didn’t realize that her attitude might have shaped perceptions about her until later, when she served on her firm’s executive committee. “Very frequently, when a woman’s name came up for a high-profile appointment, the men would say they didn’t think she would be interested,” she said. “When I asked why they thought this, they would say that the woman did not seem ambitious, often because she didn’t talk about how she was going to make partner. So I would always say, ‘Why don’t we ask her if she’d like this opportunity?’ And most of the time, the woman would be thrilled to be given the chance and would jump on it.”
I got additional insight into this dynamic when I spoke at length to a woman who had been a senior partner in litigation at a large West Coast firm for nearly 25 years. “I definitely didn’t start my career with the goal of being a partner,” she said. “I just wasn’t thinking about the rank or money. My goal was to get the best possible education in developing as a lawyer and become the best I possibly could.”
Despite fast-tracking as a partner after leaving her initial employer, she was often typecast as less ambitious than her mostly male colleagues because she never talked about making partner. Doing so, in her view, would have been ridiculous. “When you join a firm, you don’t even know what a partner does — not really, not every day,” she said. “You don’t know how to build the relationships you’ll need to bring in work and make sure it’s done superbly. So if you’re talking about it when you arrive, it means you’re only looking at it as a position, a way of winning: It means you want to make partner, but not necessarily be a partner.”
A senior partner in capital markets at one of New York’s top-ranked firms expanded on this observation. “When I joined the firm, people talked constantly about what it took to become partner, but there was virtually no discussion of what it would be like to actually be a partner,” she recalled. “Because it felt so vague and even mysterious, people who aren’t primarily motivated by title and status may wonder if they should pursue it.”
As a result of this confusion, she said, “the associates who constantly talk about it become associated in the minds of senior partners with having partnership potential.” As a member of the firm’s partnership committee, she sees this principle in action. “I notice that when a high-performing man comes up for discussion on partnership, there is an assumption that he will expect to make partner and will probably leave if he doesn’t. As a result, the conversation revolves around how to manage his expectations.”
“There are guys here who have been saying ‘I’m awesome’ ever since they got here, so people start believing it’s true.”
By contrast, she notices that “when a high-performing woman’s name comes up, the conversation is more likely to be about how to be sure she will work out, or if she is truly committed — there’s much less focus on the need to manage her expectations or worry about her leaving or feeling aggrieved if she doesn’t make it. The bottom line is, many men are seen as expecting it and many women are not, and I think men may benefit from that. There are guys here who have been saying ‘I’m awesome’ ever since they got here, so people start believing it’s true.”
What struck me about these conversations, aside from their consistency, was the link between perceptions of ambition and commitment, and how traditional ways of understanding it may have a negative impact on women’s progress. Women tend to believe their commitment will be assessed based on their willingness to work hard. But the experiences described above tend to suggest that this is not necessarily true. Trumpeting one’s ambition, which women are often reluctant or hesitant to do, may in fact be perceived in many organizations as evidence of an individual’s commitment. Recognizing this may help women to find a way to be clearer about what they believe they can achieve from the get-go. And it may help organizations develop more subtle — and accurate — ways to assess commitment.