Working flexible hours did not mean that Anna Green was any less ambitious than her male colleagues. But she remembers people being surprised when she was promoted to the position of partner at a global consulting firm.
"I was promoted to partner eight months pregnant with my third child, after six years of working three to four days a week on a flexible model," she said.
"I think it really took some strong voices in my organisation to step up for me and say ... she absolutely has the level of ambition we need for someone as a partner at BCG.
"Some people said to me, 'They promoted you and you only work three to four days a week?"
Ms Green, who is managing director at Boston Consulting Group in Sydney, said women are as ambitious as men in high-performing companies.
"If you get the engagement right and the work environment right, women can thrive and be successful as leaders," she said.
Ms Green became a partner in 2012 and a year later took on a full-time role.
As leader of the Women@BCG initiative in the Asia-Pacific region, she said new research had debunked the notion of an "ambition gap" when applied to women.
A new Boston Consulting survey of more than 200,000 employees including 141,000 women from 189 countries has found women are just as ambitious as men when they start their careers. But their ambition can start to lag if they work for companies that fail to nurture and encourage that ambition.
The new report, Dispelling the Myths of the Gender "Ambition Gap", warns that corporations that fail to embrace diversity are a cause of declining ambition.
The survey showed that the ambition gap between women and men aged 30 to 40 was 17 per cent at firms that employees felt were least progressive on gender diversity. At these firms, 66 per cent of women sought promotion, compared with 83 per cent of men.
But there was almost no ambition gap between women and men aged 30 to 40 at firms where employees felt gender diversity was improving. In these firms, 85 per cent of women had sought promotion, compared with 87 per cent of men.
BCG recommends that companies improve their culture and help women maintain their ambition by building a gender-diverse leadership team. They can also improve the availability and attitude towards flexible work.
Ms Green said the report showed that ambition can be fostered or damaged through experience.
"Organisations need to set the right environments to nurture and encourage ambition," Ms Green said.
"The BCG report shows that companies really need to lead by example if they want to foster the ambition young women have when they start off in the workforce."
Boston Consulting Group's tips for encouraging females to be ambitious:
▪ Build a gender-diverse leadership team. These teams should have the right role models in place to demonstrate that leadership is a realistic prospect for women as well as men. Take steps to combat unconscious bias by asking for blind and gender-balanced lists of candidates.
▪ Change the informal context. An employee's work experience is not defined only by the work they do but shaped by many small informal interactions with co-workers and leaders during the course of the day. Be mindful not to perpetuate stereotypes.
▪ Offer more flexible work options for everyone at the company, including senior leaders. Sixty per cent of women and men alike cite challenges in meeting increased job responsibilities while managing outside commitments as a reason they are reluctant to advance.
▪ CEOs and HR teams should be transparent, track progress and link diversity efforts to outcomes.
Anna Patty is Workplace Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter. Her reports on inequity in schools funding led to the Gonski reforms and won her national awards. Her coverage of health exposed unnecessary patient deaths at Campbelltown Hospital and led to judicial and parliamentary inquiries. At The Times of London, she exposed flaws in international medical trials.