Have you recently observed the steam coming out of the ears of a few women over forty? Not sure what’s up and what started it all? Let me clue you in. It’s a reaction to a just published McKinsey & Company report in conjunction (some would say cahoots) with The Wall Street Journal. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I am a WSJ subscriber and have been quoted by the publication a number of times. The title of the research is “Women in the Economy — a Blueprint for Change.” Staff writer Joanne Lublin was the one to give us a hint of what was to become a special section of the newspaper on April 11 of this year. She called her piece, “Coaching Urged for Women.”

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the discussions about women getting stuck in middle management because females are measured on performance and men on their potential that got me, and a few colleagues and clients, riled. We already know and understand that working hard now doesn’t necessarily get you on next year’s roster. It wasn’t the continuing salary inequity, which hasn’t gotten better in decades. Or even the battle cry that women have to support women — yes, we know that. Some of us have even practiced it for years, much to our satisfaction and delight. No, it was the statistics that claimed women’s ambition significantly diminished with age. What!?!

I was so incensed I e-mailed Ms. Lublin and questioned the “who,” “what,” and “why” of the research. I even suggested maybe it was not lack of ambition but an overwhelming sense of discouragement over the lack of advancement that had kept the female of the species stuck in upper middle management and other do bee jobs, and it was the reason they are far more likely to start their own businesses.

Women entrepreneurs — you know them — the full-time mother with a road warrior husband, a few kids in tow, an aging parent(s) on the sofa, and ailing pets. That same woman is starting up an Internet marketing or service company from the left hand corner of her kitchen table. And you know what? She’s succeeding. Of course you could always talk with Sara Blakely the founder of Spanx. She started Spanx on her dining room table and raked in over a billion dollars in revenue last year. (If you don’t know what Spanxs are, ask a very thin, fit woman, and don’t suggest she wears them, though she probably does.) Ask Oprah if she regrets not staying with the news broadcast and getting that piece of the corporate pie. Is she considered ambitious? She’s surely middle-age.

After I hit the send button and my thoughts were off to Ms. Lublin, I cooled down and gave this topic of waning ambition more thought. In the midst of the process, Ms. Lublin contacted me and asked if she could send my e-mail to McKinsey & Company. I replied, “Knock yourself out!” Then I came up with some questions.

What is ambition? Consensus is it has something to do with mastery and recognition of mastery. Okay, I’ll buy that. Unfortunately, “money and fame” didn’t hit me as the best examples to use as benchmarks for the level of ambition a woman has — simply because these have a good chance of being too narrow. I then asked myself, “Is it possible that women view ambition in a broader context, outside, as well as inside, their careers?” If this is so, maybe the most ambitious women were not even counted in the research.

Can you imagine, for certain people, an inner sense of achievement is purer, more socially acceptable, and desirable than a public display? If, in fact, acceptance is something you even care about. What if the birthing gender has chosen to engage in multiple roles and is exercising options rather than ambivalence (or shifting or lacking in ambition as some would claim).

Is there a chance that once the children are out of the house, relationships are settled into whatever they are to become, estrogen has decided to deplete, and people start using words like “wise” instead of “smart” to describe you that it’s not the perfect time to find out what you’ve really got? Live the dream, express those passions, take some risks? Can you also imagine that in most careers and professions those words are seen as “soft,” “lacking focus,” and “without a profit and loss statement?” Maybe there is immeasurable profit, but is there any question as to the ROI? Ask a middle aged woman.

Here are some actions you might want to take.

Hold people accountable for promoting women. You’re a stockholder, donor, and a voter, exercise your voice.

Get a daughter. Ask yourself, “Could I tell her, ‘you’ve got twenty years and you’re finished’?”

Raise your hand with a woman or man for the hard or turnaround projects, be a change agent, and encourage other women to join you.

Pursue profit and loss responsibilities. Get your teeth into the meat of the business. Sit with the guys (or guys, show a woman a chair).

Insist everyone talk about the potential in everyone, not just measure how hard others work.

Mentor, sponsor, and promote women.

In tough times we need all the brain power and leadership we can get. Why would we decide that 50% of the workforce (and 80% of adult consumers) are not interested or ready? Or worse, why would we think they wear out or give up before men?

(c) Jane Cranston.

Author's Bio: 

Jane Cranston is an executive career coach. She works with success-driven executives, managers and leaders to reach their potential, better manage their boss and staff, as well as develop a career strategy to reach goals and aspirations. Jane is the author of Great Job in Tough Times a step-by-step job search system. Click here to subscribe to her twice monthly Competitive Edge Report.