- At the American Express Global Women’s Conference, singer Alicia Keys announced the launch of the “The Ambition Project” – a program the company introduced to help empower women, both at American Express and beyond.
- The program is one of several Amex initiatives launched after the discovery that only a third of senior women at the company publicly refer to themself as “ambitious,” and that it only had one woman reporting to the CEO.
- The findings led Amex to prioritise creating a more inclusive environment, which now seeks to help women “own their ambition.”
- Alicia Keys is set to launch her own non-profit, She is the Music, which seeks to give women more opportunities in the music industry. She is also set to release a book on March 31 titled “More Myself: A Journey,” about her life and career.
- In an interview with Business Insider, Keys talks about American Express’ “Ambition Project,” founding her own non-profit, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Alicia Keys is ambitious. But that’s not surprising. Climbing the ranks of the music industry to become one of the greatest artists of all time isn’t something that happens by accident.Earning 15 Grammy Awards and selling over 65 million records worldwide is no easy feat. She’s a musical icon – you have to have even the slightest ambition to become one.
But after decades of following her own ambition, Keys is now paying it forward. She has partnered with American Express on “The Ambition Project” – a program the company introduced to help empower women.
Amex has launched the program after a2018 study found that only a third of its own senior female employees referred to themselves publicly as ambitious, and only one woman reported to the CEO at that time. In 2020, American Express partnered with The New York Women’s Foundation on a global study of 3,000 women, which found many did not like using the word “ambitious” to describe themselves. They preferred to use the word “motivated” instead.
American Express also found that only a third of its own senior female employees referred to themselves publicly as ambitious, and only one woman reported to the CEO at that time.
Despite the reluctance to use the word, nearly 59% of the women in the study said being ambitious was vital to becoming successful, and that the trait is essential in both life and work.
Amex worked to make its culture more inclusive after the study, and today reports that 100 women have been promoted, with 6 now reporting to the CEO. And through “The Ambition Project,” the company will expand the access women have to senior positions in the company. Panels like the one with Alicia Keys will be more common, too.
Keys agreed with the study’s findings, telling Business Insider that there is a “stigma attached” to defining oneself as ambitious.
“At times, women are more afraid to identify themselves as ambitious because of the negative connotations associated with being an ambitious woman,” Keys told Business Insider. “From aggressive to cutthroat, so many people see a stigma attached to defining themselves as ambitious.”
“It is important to create more inclusive environments where women, people of colour, and especially women of colour can succeed at all levels,” Keys said. She added that women provide a “unique perspective” and “need to be in the room.”
“Representation starts at the top, in terms of commitment as well as ethnic and gender representation. “
The number of women leading Fortune 500 companies is at an all-time high – 33 out 500. But that number is not a reflection of women not trying to rise to the top, but the culmination of the factors that bar them from having access to it.
“When it comes to inclusion and diversity, there is so much work to do,” Keys said. “Representation starts at the top, in terms of commitment as well as ethnic and gender representation.”
Last year’s annual Women in the Workplace by consulting firm McKinsey found that there is a “broken rung” in the corporate ladder for women: gender parity, where women are not being promoted to manager positions as often as their male counterparts.
McKinsey also found that for every 100 men hired and promoted to manager positions, only 72 women are promoted. This means more women become stuck at entry-level positions, with men holding 62% of manager-level positions, and women holding just 38%.
The numbers are even worse for women of colour.
For every 100 men that are promoted, only 68 Latina women and 58 black women are. As Business Insider previously reported, black people make up only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at larger companies, and only 8% of white-collar professionals.
But despite the numbers, there is overall progress for women rising through the ranks, McKinsey found that female C-suite representation has risen to 21%, which is up from 17% in 2015. Companies such as American Express are being more aware of the importance of female inclusion, and creating safe environments for women to become, feel, and even say the word “ambitious.”
“Ambition is intrinsically tied to confidence – not just in ourselves – but in our ability to be recognised for our contributions and, ultimately, find the resources we need to achieve our goals,” Denise Pickett, president of American Express’ global services group, previously told Business Insider. “By openly articulating our ambitions, and the barriers we may face in achieving them, we can find the right advocates to help us overcome these challenges.”
“Ambition means so many different things for women – across both our personal and professional lives”
Keys and American Express teamed up at American Express’ Global Women’s Conference on February 10, where Keys spoke onstage with American Express Chief Marketing Officer Elizabeth Rutledge, as well as tennis legend Venus Williams, about what it means to be “ambitious.”
To Business Insider, Keys spoke about her career in the music industry, and described her ambition as “a personal desire to achieve a vision and a dream.”
“Ambition means so many different things for women – across both our personal and professional lives,” Keys said. “I am quite ambitious and rigorous, and in some ways it’s turned me into a workaholic. As time has passed, I have learned a bit better how to balance it all – to create joy. If you don’t have that, you can lose it.”
Keys spoke more on the subject in her new book, set to be released late March, entitled “More Myself: A Journey.”
In addition, she has launched a non-profit organisation, She is the Music, which seeks to increase female representation in the music industry, specifically in the roles of songwriters and producers – positions which have historically low female representation.
The latest Inclusion in the Recording Studio report by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 12.3% of songwriters are women, in comparison to 87.7% with regard to men songwriters. Of producers, only 2.1% are women, compared to 97.9% men – and 0.0005% are women of colour.
“The music industry still has a way to go,” Keys said. “I never thought the numbers would be that drastic. So, I got together with other women in the music business – my lead engineer and my music publisher and another incredible woman at William Morris Agency – and we all said, ‘how can we participate? How can we make sure we’re creating moments and opportunities for other women? Are we hiring women?’ We had to reflect on our own ability to change the narrative.”
Although the music industry may not be making as much progress as overall corporate America, there has been some progress for female artists; especially as leaders such as Keys are take charge in trying to make a change.
In 2018, then-Recording Academy President Neil Portnow was asked by Variety about gender parity in the music industry and said women need to “step up” if they want to be part of and recognised in the music industry. Portnow announced that he would be “stepping down” four months later, following various misconduct accusations against the academy, including harassment.
Keys spoke about the importance of a support system in which women take care of one another, at the American Express Global Women’s Conference. She said that, in addition to “helping women embrace their ambition and pay it forward,” it is also essential for women to be more ambitious for each other.
“I’ve learned you have to be focused on your own North Star to find your joy, to get where you want to go,” Keys said. “I’ve found a lot of joy in being ambitious for the dreams of other people who really need the support to get to the next level within.”
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