Moms don’t “covet the corner office,” implies a New York Times headline for a profile of one mother’s way of balancing work and family. Instead of “leaning in,” writes Catherine Rampell, middle-class moms hang on, at least while children are young and professional plus family duties pile up. Rampell’s article highlights how working flexibly—departing early some days to attend children’s ball games and working from home on Fridays—allows a working mom to maintain her job, her family’s economic security, and her status as “fun mom” to her kids. But does chugging along a career track flexibly mean a mother has lowered her sights, allowed ambition to slide? Not necessarily.
Females and males start life with the same amount of ambition. According to Peggy Drexler, both have remarkably similar desires for achievement. “Both boys and girls dream of accomplishment, recognition, and honor requiring work or skill.” Females graduate from college at higher rates than males and take more entry-level management jobs (53 versus 47 percent), according to McKinsey & Company. But soon thereafter—around middle-management—women’s numbers drop to 37 percent for middle-managers, and lower, to 26 percent, for vice president and higher-level jobs.
Parenthood crimps the straight climb up the career ladder for both genders but especially for women. Rampell states in a follow-up article that “a majority of working parents, men as well as women, don’t actually want more responsibilities at the office.” She cites a Families and Work Institute study of the changing workforce, which found only 37 percent of mothers and 44 percent of fathers with children under age 18 wanted more job responsibility. Jordan Weissmann looks at the Families and Work Institute data by age group and concludes it “tells a simple story: By our mid-to-late 20s, the desire to take on more responsibility fades fast for both men and women. In other words, ambition starts sliding right around the time most Americans start having kids.” A 2011 report by More Magazine suggests why. Of the women aged 35 to 44 surveyed, 43 percent reported being less ambitious than they were 10 years earlier. More attributes this result to heightened politics, pressure, and responsibility the women witnessed in bosses’ jobs and the schedule inflexibility they create. The women didn’t eschew more work hours, but rather the lack of control they saw accompanying upper management jobs.
Some control is restored when a person can work flexibly, which explains why a whopping 92 percent of More’s respondents named flexibility key to finding the right job. A new survey by Catalyst of 726 female and male MBAs also found a great desire for flexibility in the workplace. Eighty-one percent said their employers offer flexible work arrangements and over half of the people (two thirds at non-profits) surveyed—at all leadership levels—said flexibility was very or extremely important to them. Furthermore, in Catalyst’s survey, when firms offered flexible work arrangements, neither women nor men were inclined to lower their career aspirations (only about one in three). 85 percent of women and 94 percent of men said they still aspired to c-suite level jobs. But at firms without workplace flexibility, 57 percent of women (and 28 percent of men) said they were likely to “dial down” their career ambition. Only 54 percent of women (83 percent of men) still coveted the corner office under inflexible working conditions.
Further evidence of a positive relationship between career ambition and flexible work arrangements comes from a 2010 study of 212 Dutch working parents. Ambitious parents, especially mothers, made significantly more use of flexible work arrangements. They also worked longer hours, reached higher job levels, and felt greater career satisfaction. Work hours mediated the relationship between ambition and career outcomes, and flexible working from home helped mothers work the longer hours necessary to advance their careers.
People who use flexible work arrangements can be some of the most ambitious employees in an organization. If they are mothers, in particular, they need and value some control over when and where they work, and working flexibility offers it. This, in turn, creates the option to continue investing necessary time in a job and career commensurate with ambition. Ambition may slide somewhat during the life course, but with flexible working, some will glance again at the rungs of a career ladder and see fit to step up.