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18 June 2018

We are seeing rising levels of female career ambition – but how can women break the habits that are holding them back

In March, we released our Time to talk research – focused on professional women age 28-40 from across the world, it made one thing clear – we are seeing rising levels of female confidence and ambition.

Women are more confident and ambitious than ever. 82% are confident in their ability to fulfil their career aspirations, 77% in their ability to lead, and 73% are actively seeking career advancement opportunities. Furthermore, they have strong leadership aspirations, with 75% of women saying it was important to them they reach the top of their chosen career, namely obtain a leadership position. Women are confident, ambitious and ready to progress.

Women are also more proactively pursuing their career goals by actively negotiating for raises, promotions and seeking out the experiences seen as critical to career advancement. And our survey shows it is working – there is a strong positive correlation that the women who negotiate are getting what they ask for, in particular with regards to high-visibility projects and stretch assignments.

But we aren’t quite there yet. When promotion opportunities arise, women still have big strides to make in actively pursuing such opportunities and making their career aspirations known. In fact, 44% of women would expect their hard work to be recognised as a symbol of their promotion aspirations and for their employer to approach them about the promotion. This is all well and good, but working hard and being really good at your job does not necessarily ‘a-promotion-tap-on-the-shoulder’ make.

This approach leaves a number of women open to getting stuck in their career risks. For example, assumption risks, the assumption that they are happy and content in their role and as they’ve never vocalised it are not interested in progression. Or not being front of mind risk. If Peter, Michael, John and Elizabeth have all been in the boss's office vocalising their desire to progress, then right or wrong, despite Anne’s perhaps equal or better performance and potential, it will often be the case that she is simply not the first name that jumps to the boss's mind when a promotion opportunity arises.  


Furthermore, a substantial 39% of women said they would apply for the promotion, BUT only if they met all of the job criteria. This insight is not news.  I’m sure we’ve all had personal experiences where we’ve been hesitant to put ourselves forward or say yes to an opportunity because we don’t feel we quite tick all of the boxes required. Or perhaps we’ve seen this manifest in the workplace with women providing the ‘I’m not sure I’m ready response’ while men on the other-hand tend to be much more brave in saying, yes ‘I’ll give that a go’ or ‘I don’t meet all the role criteria but I know I can do it’.

A mind-set shift is required, a promotion in itself means you are progressing, that you’ll be doing new things and developing new skills. So why would you wait until you could do it all already before putting yourself forward. I call on women not to think about the ‘well I’ve no experience in certain areas’ factor that is holding them back, and instead to think ‘oh great – they’ll be the new areas I’ll get to develop and I know I have the potential to do it well’.

The Time to talk research shows a much smaller margin of women, 17%, would put themselves forward for the role even if they didn’t meet all the criteria. Vocalising career aspirations and removing the expectation that you need to be 100% job-ready for a more senior role are two career tips for women that will hopefully help this 17% figure rise.  

PwC’s Time to talk report shares an ecosystem of three elements which are crucial for organisations to create an inclusive working and talent environment where both women – and men – can succeed. But achieving career potential is a two-way street, with an onus on both the employer and the employee to play their part.

For more tips on how women can change their behaviours and habits to support their career progression aspirations tune in to the strategy+business recent podcast featuring Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen discussing how female professionals can change self-limiting career behaviours. Take it from me, it is well worth a listen. You can also find out more by checking out their How Women Can Succeed by Rethinking Old Habits book excerpt.

Let’s all play our part in making this rising female career ambition less career aspiration and more career reality.  


Aoife Flood, PwC

Based in Dublin, Ireland, Aoife Flood is Senior Manager of the Global Diversity & Inclusion Programme Office for PwC with responsibility for the development and implementation of our network-wide global Diversity & Inclusion strategy.

She is a proud PwC female millennial and lead researcher and author of our ‘Time to talk: What has to change for women at work’, ‘Women unbound: Unleashing female entrepreneurial potential’, ‘Winning the fight for female talent’, ‘Moving women with purpose: Creating gender inclusive global mobility’, ‘The female millennial: A new era of talent’, and 'The PwC diversity journey: Creating impact, achieving results’ thought leadership publications. Most recently Aoife also co-authored PwC’s crowdfunding focused Women unbound publication.

Aoife is also co-author of our Global Gender Agenda blog. You can learn more about Aoife here or find her on twitter: @AoifeRFlood.


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