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(Hint: It’s not what you think!)

Recently some business execs were sharing with me their frustration at what they saw was the lack of women  who were ready to be promoted. They found the reason to be…

Work culture not supporting women showing up?…  Lack of mentors who believe in them?

Visible lack of other women leading?…  Unconscious belief that they need to be over qualified to apply?…

Ah no.  They shared that rarely spoken but often thought belief that essentially, women lack ambition.

I was quick to assure them this was not the case.

Women are ambitious! Hell yes we are!

Women are ambitious to be seen. To influence. To be wildly successful.

We are ambitious to make our mark, make a big impact, change the world! We are so freaking ambitious that we froth at the thought of what needs to be done and what we might do!

And research backs this up. McKinsey’s 2014 global executive survey for instance found that female executives are ambitious and sure of their own abilities to become top managers, and that both men (83%) and women (82%) want to reach top-level management.

However, there is something going on – these executives weren’t making it up. A study across 3 countries by the Centre for Talent Innovation (CTI) gives a pointer. They showed over time women do lose interest in leadership positions and power, while men remain focused for longer and in a more intentional way on power to achieve their aims.

So what are these reasons for this decline in the interest to lead? Is it having kids? Domestic dramas? Shifting priorities?


The real reason according to the study is that women perceive that the burdens of leadership are not worth the price, and they don’t fully realise the benefits that being a leader can bring to achieving their goals.

This is a critical piece.

There is a very real need for women to reframe their meaning of, and relationship to ‘leadership’ and what it means to lead. And the same is true for power. Women need to own both leading and power on their own terms.

Women often don’t see themselves as a leader, and in fact can shy away from describing themselves as such, (which might be seen as lacking ambition). This was true for me.

Can you believe that when I was first asked to be the CEO for The Hunger Project Australia I SAID NO???

Crazy huh? But through the lens of this research it makes perfect sense. I needed to discover and own what being a CEO meant to me that was authentic, and unpick the bullshit images of what I thought a leader looked like.

[tweetable alt=””]It’s crucial that women reinvent and claim leadership[/tweetable] – and not just for their own sakes. The world needs more women expressing their power in the world!

Two things can be done:

Women’s ambition to lead can be empowered through developing a new perspective on what being a leader truly means, coupled with tools and insight to claim that power and lead authentically. Question yourself – what does being a leader mean to you? And how can you powerfully re-imagine that?

For organizations, more women lead when strategies are developed to change women’s perception of power, and when visible role models are encouraged to give voice to the many benefits, joys and fulfilment that leadership brings. Can your company do more to enable this?

Leadership expressed uniquely for each woman is the secret source to ambition. Supporting this makes every organization richer and more robust.


For programs in your organization that help reinvent women’s leadership, speak to Cathy!