Professional women lose confidence, ambition as they reach mid-career, new Bain & Company study finds


Nearly half of women enter the workforce with their eye on the C-Suite,
but their aspiration levels drop 60 percent after more than just two years on the job

New York – Sept. 15, 2014 – Women embark on careers with high expectations and aspirations for advancement, but this confidence evaporates as they enter mid-career. A new Bain & Company study of 1,000 men and women spread across a wide spectrum of ages and career levels, Everyday Moments of Truth, found that nearly half of all new women employees aspire to top management but, within five years, only 16 percent still hold that ambition; this compared with 34 percent of men who begin their careers confident they will reach the top and remain so after two or more years of experience.

Bain’s research refutes the commonly held belief that marriage or starting a family is responsible for side-tracking women when it comes to career advancement.  The study found that marital and parental status does not significantly differ between women who aspire and those who do not.  Instead, Bain suggests that women lack meaningful recognition and support from managers during the mid-level career period, when women crystalize their aspirations and build – or erode – their confidence.

“The common thinking has been that efforts to promote gender equality should focus on the classroom (the individual), or the boardroom (the senior management team),” said Julie Coffman, a partner in Bain’s Chicago office and one of the report’s authors. “Our findings confirm that a lot more emphasis belongs in the conference room – that is, during employees’ formative years in the workplace. Frontline managers can – but often don’t – play a critical role in helping to shape and support women’s career aspirations and to reinforce and bolster women’s confidence.”
Bain’s research found:

  • Aspirations for top management posts drop more than 60 percent among women as they progress in their careers, with 43 percent of new women employees aiming for the C-suite, but only 16 percent of women with 2-5 years of professional experience aspiring to do the same.  
  • Confidence among women shows a similar decline, with 27 percent of new women employees believing they can reach top management positions.  Mid-career, that number drops by nearly half; men’s confidence stays about the same as they progress in their careers.
  • While both men and women at the senior level report a significant bump up in confidence and ambition for top management, the trend is much more pronounced among men. More than half of senior level men, compared to less than one-third of senior level women, feel that the C-Suite is within their reach.

According to the Bain report, there are three areas where mid-career women encounter negative experiences and perceptions that put them off the fast track. First is a disconnect with the so-called ideal worker stereotype – the “always on” fast-tracking go-getter. Second is lack of supervisor support for mid-level women.  The third – borne out of the other shortcomings – is a lack of women role models at top company levels.

To turn this around, Bain recommends changes for both frontline managers and corporate leadership. “Direct supervisors in particular, our research has shown, can fundamentally drive employee and engagement,” Coffman said.

For managers, Bain recommends the following:

  • Embrace a more balanced view of the ideal worker.
  • Invest more time in providing individualized attention to employees.
  • Expand the concept and definition of role models.

For corporate leadership:

  • Communicate company expectations for gender parity across the organization; equip and train managers to meet these expectations.
  • Refine recruiting and talent management approaches and procedures.
  • Foster sponsorships between senior-level employees and rising stars.

To receive a copy of Bain’s Gender Parity study, “Everyday Moments of Truth,” or to schedule an interview with its authors, contact Dan Pinkney at or +1 646 562 8102.

# # #

About Bain & Company, Inc.

Bain & Company is the management consulting firm that the world's business leaders come to when they want results. Bain advises clients on strategy, operations, technology, organization, private equity and mergers and acquisition, developing practical insights that clients act on and transferring skills that make change stick. The firm aligns its incentives with clients by linking its fees to their results. Bain clients have outperformed the stock market 4 to 1. Founded in 1973, Bain has 53 offices in 34 countries, and its deep expertise and client roster cross every industry and economic sector. For more information visit: Follow us on Twitter @BainAlerts.