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Do women have ambition? Yeah, nah, not really

AMBITION! screams the cover of this week’s Listener. ‘Have women got it?’

On balance, I’d say ‘probably not’.

The Listener’s cover story, worthy as it is, digs into the dearth of women in top roles. The Helen Clark/Annette King/Fran Wilde/Teresa Gattung era has passed, and what do we have now? A whole lot of not very much, it would seem.

The story runs over logical ground. It’s babies, isn’t it! Family commitments! The glass ceiling! A lack of networking! All of the above!

I’d argue women often do lack ambition (as it's framed in this debate), for a very good reason, and it isn’t the interruption of marriage and babies, or a lack of after-work drinkies and chit-chat. If women lack ambition, it’s largely because from a very young age, many are fed a steady diet of Paris Hilton, pink tutus, frivolous reality TV shows, lipsticks and boob jobs, and are socially conditioned to believe their worth lies in a) their appearance, b) their personal relationships c) their capacity for motherhood and d) how many pairs of designer shoes they have in the closet.

That the media constantly reinforces the issue of appearance also doesn’t help. Helen Clark was a longtime victim of the aesthetic police. Nikki Kaye* and Jacinda Ardern's fight for the Auckland Central seat was framed in the same terms, with headings about the so-called ‘battle of the babes’. Even women in science aren’t immune, with the EU getting it oh-so-wrong with this facepalmish campaign. And if you wanted any more kitschy diminutives, just try turning on the Olympics coverage right now, where our female athletes are repeatedly referred to as ‘girls’ and our local news media simply wants to knowwho’s sexiest.

Because it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you look while you’re playing the game!

Women are kept so busy taming the unruly body and chasing after shoes and shiny baubles that 'ambition' sometimes simply doesn’t enter the equation.

Still, other issues remain. ASB chief executive Barbara Chapman in this piece believes there’s “some unconscious bias going on” – an aspect of the glass ceiling problem that was only just lightly touched on in the Listener’s piece.

“We’ve got to drill into that and understand what to do about it,” Chapman says. “To measure people on it and measure leadership on it and make sure they understand it’s not good enough.”

She points out that it’s been 30 years since the legislation was enacted that rendered it illegal to pay women different amounts than men, but we still have a gender pay gap of around 10 percent – and that’s after you account for a broken career for the sake of family.

“On the current run rate, it’s going to take another 30 years before that gets closed. Which means 60 years after the legislation was enacted, it will have taken effect. What other piece of legislation sits around for 60 years before it actually comes to life?”

*A note of irony: ‘Ambition’ comes from Middle English, via Old French from the Latin ambitio, from ambire, meaning ‘to go around canvassing for votes’. Heh.

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