Is your corporate job eroding your confidence?

A working mother is more likely to judge herself harshly for spending time away from her family. Her colleagues are more ...

A working mother is more likely to judge herself harshly for spending time away from her family. Her colleagues are more likely to judge her, too. Photo: Stocksy

Women begin their working lives filled with ambition – even more ambition than their male counterparts.

And just two years later, that burning fire for the top job has been doused.

Don't blame babies.

A new study from Bain and Co in the US surveyed more than 1000 people in a range of US companies last year and discovered another big difference in the way men and women work.

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Nearly 25 per cent more women compared to men aspire to reach top management at the start of their careers – 43 per cent to 34 per cent - but men edge out women in the confidence stakes (28 per cent to 27 per cent).

Just two years later and those numbers for women plunge. The aspiration level drops to 16 per cent and the confidence level to 13 per cent. Male aspiration and confidence remain unmoved.

It's figures like these that make Michelle Dixon determined to make a difference. She's the CEO and partner of legal firm Maddocks. Dixon made headlines last year because of the firm's decision made to slash the pay of a male partner to get gender pay fairness. Now it's focusing on making women partners, getting them on to the board.

And the Dixon's board already has a make-up of 50 per cent women.

What makes a difference in an organisation? For one thing, having a female CEO. 

Dixon says by having women in senior leadership positions make women recognise that it's possible. As well, every single person must take unconscious bias training. She says that since every single person carries biases, the training ensures that staff are aware of what those biases are; and that also makes a difference to the way people work.

And of course the pay equity issue is huge – Dixon is a Pay Equity Ambassador for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. When women return from parental leave their former clients are returned to them. The staff who looked after those clients in the interim are custodians.

It's all pretty revolutionary for a law firm. So how's that going for the bottom line?

"The board is functioning beautifully, profits have improved significantly," says Dixon. 

That's the kind of cultural overhaul which will fix the problem, says Yolanda Beattie, a spokeswoman for the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

"I'm sick of hearing that women don't want it as much," she says.

The idea that women have to fit compliantly into an existing – and sometimes malignant - workplace culture is erodes women's aspiration and confidence. The Bain survey shows that when women start work men and women equally believe that they see themselves as fitting into the typical stereotype of success within their companies - 40 per cent each.

Just two years in, women's concept of their own alignment within a company has dropped nearly 40 per cent, compared to 25 per cent for men. What's worse is that women feel that their supervisors are no longer as supportive of their career aspirations as they once were – that measure drops by one-third.

Beattie says that companies must stop expecting employees to sacrifice everything for the job.

"That idea is alive and well in corporate Australia and until companies really come to grips with redefining the ideal worker and the ideal leader, we will never get anywhere in this issue," she says.

Last week, she was talking to senior people in leading architectural firms who excused the long hours and family-unfriendly working environments on "passion" – which sweeps all before it. "That's hard to do when you've got family aspirations."

"But passion is what ensures flexibility. It ensures flexibility, autonomy and talent and skill.

"It's not about this male paradigm of long hours and golf courses; and still in some cases, strip clubs."

Beattie says that in the highly sales driven workplaces, such as in IT and broking, 'boys club' style bonding like strip club outings are still very much part of the culture.

"It's not about fixing women, it's about creating workplaces where men and women are equal; and recognising that most workplaces don't allow men and women to thrive equally."

The Bain study included the recollections of one woman who was completely disillusioned by her firm's management retreat. 

"Watching middle-aged white male after middle-age white male tell their war stories of sacrificing everything to close the sale was demoralising, I just kept sinking lower in my chair and thinking that I would never be able to make it to the senior ranks if this was what it took."

Rae Cooper, Associate Professor in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney, has worked for years in this area and finds it disappointing that employing organisations are dampening the ambition of bright young women.

"Young women are better educated and more engaged in the labour force than at any point in history. Smart organisations will recognise and capitalise on this talent and investment.

"Young women should choose employers who acknowledge and nurture their talent.

"They should dump bosses who don't."

Jenna Price will be appearing at the Women of the World Festival in Brisbane from 19-21 June. It's a weekend program of talks, speed mentoring and cultural activities. For information on tickets and program details, visit WOW Brisbane.