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This House Believes The Only Limit To Female Success Is Female Ambition

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Feminism is the topic of this Thursday's debate at the Cambridge Union. Tabatha Leggett and Anna Stansbury discuss this week's motion in anticipation of the main event.

Tabatha reads Philosophy and is a former Editor of the Cambridge University online tabloid The Tab. She writes in favour of the motion:

Women have come a long way in the last 100 years. We've gained the right to vote, work, get trained, and hold public office. The UK even saw its first female Prime Minister elected 33 years ago. There exists an equal pay act, and the principle of non-discrimination is now a part of the European Convention of Human Rights. We're done; we're equal. Right? Wrong. Women still have a long way to go.

Let's not forget that only 22% of the MPs in Britain are women, a statistic so low it leaves us behind Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Moreover, just one fifth of the partners in the leading 100 UK law firms are female. Although things have undoubtedly improved in the last century, they need perfecting.

A recent survey of 3,000 managers by the Institute of Leadership and Management, showed that only half of women expect to become managers upon starting their careers. This compares with almost two thirds of men. What's more, a staggeringly high 20% of the women surveyed didn't expect to become managers at all, compared with just 11% of men. Over a third of women felt that their gender hindered their career progression.

The problem is that we're not being ambitious enough. We're not setting our sights high enough and standing up for ourselves. We're letting things slide, and we're not standing up to sexism because 'everyone does it', and 'it's just a bit of fun'. But that's not right. Women need to acknowledge when things aren't fair, and we need to stand up for ourselves.

Just look at women like Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo and the USA's highest paid woman. Bartz overcame breast cancer, and yet developed and expanded the third most visited website in the world. Look at Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-A-Porter, which she sold for £350 million in 2010. And look at Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who took the company from 30 staff to 15,000 employees and achieved a turnover of £5 billion just 10 years later. These are women who set the bar: women who have the ambition, dedication and work ethic to achieve great things.

Outdated stereotypes about the roles of women in the workplace have undoubtedly had an effect on the cultural attitudes that we hold about what sorts of jobs women should do. The world of work hasn't caught up with the needs of the modern family where both men and women need to work, meaning that it is still women who require flexibility within a job to allow for childcare. But this only serves to limit women's expectations for their careers and thwart their ambition.

We've been gently tapping at the glass ceiling for too long. It's time for women to take bold action to achieve a real change. It's time for us to regain our confidence and ambition and ensure that there is no limit to female success. If you look at how much we've achieved in the last 100 years, just imagine where we could be in 2112.

Anna reads Economics and is Director of Policy at the Wilberforce Society, Cambridge's student-run political think tank. She argues in opposition:

Since the mid-1970s, girls have been doing as well as or better than boys at school. By the mid-1990s, there were more women than men in higher education; since 2000 more women than men have been getting 1st class or 2:1 degrees. (Why are we talking about limits to female success? Surely it's the men we should be worried about?)

Women are no less ambitious or high-achieving than men throughout their youth. But somehow, at some point, they end up in a situation where women on average earn 19% less than men for the same type of job (27% less for senior managers), and where only 35% of managers and senior officials and only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members are female. Does it seem likely that these women who compete equally with men when young lose their ambition or ability as they age?

It's no coincidence that it's between 25 and 45 that women lose out most relative to men in terms of pay and promotions. We need to talk about babies.

Or, more exactly, the way society deals with babies. Children and childcare are still, rightly or wrongly, largely woman's domain. And so companies rationally fear to promote or hire a woman because she may take maternity leave. Women may be bypassed for promotion while they are away. Or women may leave their jobs to take time out, and find no way back in afterwards. Because men don't tend to take time out for children, it's a woman's problem, and it impedes women's careers.

It's no good saying women should have to make a choice between family and success in their career. While women have to compromise on career to look after family and men don't, there is no level playing field. There are myriad ways to make career and family more compatible (for both genders) - repeated to tedium, but only because they're still not being implemented properly: flexible working hours, tele-working, abolishing face-time culture, parental leave that must be split between father and mother, free childcare, fast-track re-entry for parents who've taken time out... Until we remove the enormous obstacle to female success that is the incompatibility of the modern workplace with the modern family, we can't possibly know whether or not women lack ambition.

Of course there are other obstacles. While overt sexism is mostly a thing of the past, insidious gender stereotyping affects consideration of women's abilities. Female leaders can't win - if they are traditionally "feminine" they aren't assertive enough and are judged on their appearance instead of ability; if they are assertive, they are criticised for being aggressive, domineering and "too manly". Stereotypes that associate success-oriented behaviours with masculinity may limit women's own ambition as to what they can achieve; even where they don't, they can limit other men and women's perceptions of that woman's potential (see Cordelia Fine's comprehensive summary of the literature behind this in Delusions of Gender). And finally 36% of the pay gap between men and women can't be explained by factors such as differences in occupation, years of work, or education, according to the ONS. Discrimination clearly still plays a part.

I don't look around and see swathes of women who are too timid, lazy or unambitious to make it to the top. I don't see women who work hard and achieve highly at school and university, then suddenly give up on their desire to be the best. I see women who are torn between the competing pressures that society places on them, as they strive to be as good and as hard-working as men in demanding careers even while they spend more time taking care of children than those male counterparts. I see a whole generation of frustrated women who grew up in the second and third-wave feminist era where anything was possible, who got top jobs, took time out to have children and are now stranded without a way back in.

Women's position in society has changed beyond recognition over the last decades. But there is still far to go. To say women aren't as successful as men purely because they lack ambition is patronising, it's undermining, and it ultimately discourages removal of the real, tangible barriers women face when striving for success.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and would like to contribute to this blog, please e-mail Sophie Odenthal on press@cus.org for more information
Feminism is the topic of this Thursday's debate at the Cambridge Union. Tabatha Leggett and Anna Stansbury discuss this week's motion in anticipation of the main event.

Tabatha reads Philosophy and is a former Editor of the Cambridge University online tabloid The Tab. She writes in favour of the motion:

Women have come a long way in the last 100 years. We've gained the right to vote, work, get trained, and hold public office. The UK even saw its first female Prime Minister elected 33 years ago. There exists an equal pay act, and the principle of non-discrimination is now a part of the European Convention of Human Rights. We're done; we're equal. Right? Wrong. Women still have a long way to go.

Let's not forget that only 22% of the MPs in Britain are women, a statistic so low it leaves us behind Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan. Moreover, just one fifth of the partners in the leading 100 UK law firms are female. Although things have undoubtedly improved in the last century, they need perfecting.

A recent survey of 3,000 managers by the Institute of Leadership and Management, showed that only half of women expect to become managers upon starting their careers. This compares with almost two thirds of men. What's more, a staggeringly high 20% of the women surveyed didn't expect to become managers at all, compared with just 11% of men. Over a third of women felt that their gender hindered their career progression.

The problem is that we're not being ambitious enough. We're not setting our sights high enough and standing up for ourselves. We're letting things slide, and we're not standing up to sexism because 'everyone does it', and 'it's just a bit of fun'. But that's not right. Women need to acknowledge when things aren't fair, and we need to stand up for ourselves.

Just look at women like Carol Bartz, the CEO of Yahoo and the USA's highest paid woman. Bartz overcame breast cancer, and yet developed and expanded the third most visited website in the world. Look at Natalie Massenet, the founder of Net-A-Porter, which she sold for £350 million in 2010. And look at Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay who took the company from 30 staff to 15,000 employees and achieved a turnover of £5 billion just 10 years later. These are women who set the bar: women who have the ambition, dedication and work ethic to achieve great things.

Outdated stereotypes about the roles of women in the workplace have undoubtedly had an effect on the cultural attitudes that we hold about what sorts of jobs women should do. The world of work hasn't caught up with the needs of the modern family where both men and women need to work, meaning that it is still women who require flexibility within a job to allow for childcare. But this only serves to limit women's expectations for their careers and thwart their ambition.

We've been gently tapping at the glass ceiling for too long. It's time for women to take bold action to achieve a real change. It's time for us to regain our confidence and ambition and ensure that there is no limit to female success. If you look at how much we've achieved in the last 100 years, just imagine where we could be in 2112.

Anna reads Economics and is Director of Policy at the Wilberforce Society, Cambridge's student-run political think tank. She argues in opposition:

Since the mid-1970s, girls have been doing as well as or better than boys at school. By the mid-1990s, there were more women than men in higher education; since 2000 more women than men have been getting 1st class or 2:1 degrees. (Why are we talking about limits to female success? Surely it's the men we should be worried about?)

Women are no less ambitious or high-achieving than men throughout their youth. But somehow, at some point, they end up in a situation where women on average earn 19% less than men for the same type of job (27% less for senior managers), and where only 35% of managers and senior officials and only 12.5% of FTSE 100 board members are female. Does it seem likely that these women who compete equally with men when young lose their ambition or ability as they age?

It's no coincidence that it's between 25 and 45 that women lose out most relative to men in terms of pay and promotions. We need to talk about babies.

Or, more exactly, the way society deals with babies. Children and childcare are still, rightly or wrongly, largely woman's domain. And so companies rationally fear to promote or hire a woman because she may take maternity leave. Women may be bypassed for promotion while they are away. Or women may leave their jobs to take time out, and find no way back in afterwards. Because men don't tend to take time out for children, it's a woman's problem, and it impedes women's careers.

It's no good saying women should have to make a choice between family and success in their career. While women have to compromise on career to look after family and men don't, there is no level playing field. There are myriad ways to make career and family more compatible (for both genders) - repeated to tedium, but only because they're still not being implemented properly: flexible working hours, tele-working, abolishing face-time culture, parental leave that must be split between father and mother, free childcare, fast-track re-entry for parents who've taken time out... Until we remove the enormous obstacle to female success that is the incompatibility of the modern workplace with the modern family, we can't possibly know whether or not women lack ambition.

Of course there are other obstacles. While overt sexism is mostly a thing of the past, insidious gender stereotyping affects consideration of women's abilities. Female leaders can't win - if they are traditionally "feminine" they aren't assertive enough and are judged on their appearance instead of ability; if they are assertive, they are criticised for being aggressive, domineering and "too manly". Stereotypes that associate success-oriented behaviours with masculinity may limit women's own ambition as to what they can achieve; even where they don't, they can limit other men and women's perceptions of that woman's potential (see Cordelia Fine's comprehensive summary of the literature behind this in Delusions of Gender). And finally 36% of the pay gap between men and women can't be explained by factors such as differences in occupation, years of work, or education, according to the ONS. Discrimination clearly still plays a part.

I don't look around and see swathes of women who are too timid, lazy or unambitious to make it to the top. I don't see women who work hard and achieve highly at school and university, then suddenly give up on their desire to be the best. I see women who are torn between the competing pressures that society places on them, as they strive to be as good and as hard-working as men in demanding careers even while they spend more time taking care of children than those male counterparts. I see a whole generation of frustrated women who grew up in the second and third-wave feminist era where anything was possible, who got top jobs, took time out to have children and are now stranded without a way back in.

Women's position in society has changed beyond recognition over the last decades. But there is still far to go. To say women aren't as successful as men purely because they lack ambition is patronising, it's undermining, and it ultimately discourages removal of the real, tangible barriers women face when striving for success.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union, and would like to contribute to this blog, please e-mail Sophie Odenthal on press@cus.org for more information

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