The XX Factor

Does Career Ambition Really Decrease in Middle-Aged Women?

In an otherwise mundane Wall Street Journal story based on a report from the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm about women in the workplace- headlined “Coaching Urged for Women” -comes a fascinating and, on the surface at least, counterintuitive nugget of information.

McKinsey’s new report finds that “female ambition declines sharply at middle age. About 64% of women ages 45 to 54 years old expressed a desire to advance professionally, compared with 78% of the men in the same age range. The comparable figures were 92% and 98%, respectively, for women and men aged 23 to 34.”

Shouldn’t women be finding NEW energy at that age? This survey of more than 2,500 men and women focused on management types at large companies, presumably educated and career-focused. So let’s say these women established themselves a bit and then had children once they reached their 30s. Now that they are approaching middle age, the kids are older and more independent, and Mom can get back to focusing on her career, nabbing that promotion or making partner (finally), right? (The discrepancy between the career ambition of men and women is a battle for someone else. You can say that men don’t worry as much about their families, or you can say that middle-aged men feel more pressure to provide for their families with college and retirement looming.)

Based on the completely anecdotal evidence of my own experiences, I would say not so fast. It’s easy to think, when you’ve got infants and toddlers, that life will just be easier once the kids are out of diapers, can dress themselves, and can venture beyond their own yard to play with friends. But then they start to get older, and you realize that the real work is just beginning.

It might be physically exhausting to spend your evenings and weekends building block towers, playing in the sand, and spending 20 minutes loading everyone into the car so you can go to the zoo, park, aquarium, etc. It can drive you to tears to try to get them to eat their vegetables and go to bed on time.

But then when they achieve a certain level of independence, there are whole new battles to fight, and let me tell you, it’s far more mentally stressful to have to worry about whether your 7-year-old is being bullied and, if so, whether he’s going to be scarred for life and whether the public school curriculum is too infantile and what can you do about it if you don’t have $20,000 a year for private school tuition (TIMES 3!) and how many activities are not enough or too many. And that’s all before the hormones kick in.

Physically exhausting toddlers at least make it easy to sleep at night. But the stuff you have to worry about once they get older is the stuff that keeps you up at night, tossing and turning and constantly questioning whether you’re doing the right thing. And maybe that’s when working moms decide that they would rather stay comfortable in their job and devote what extra energy they can muster to making sure their kids get through adolescence in one piece.

Unhappy businesswoman working late at desk with laptop by Hemera/Thinkstock Images.