[SINGAPORE] 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 in the US spread across a wide spectrum of ages and career levels titled Everyday Moments of Truth found that 43 per cent of women aspire to be in top management during the first two years of their position, compared with 34 per cent of men at that stage.

Both genders are equally confident about their ability to reach a top management position at that stage. This suggests that women are entering the workforce with the wind in their sails, feeling highly qualified after success at university.

However, over time, women's aspiration levels drop by more than 60 per cent while men's stay the same. Among employees with two or more years of experience, 34 per cent of men are still aiming for the top, while only 16 per cent of women are.

"As they gain experience, women's confidence also falls by half, while men's stays about the same," noted the report.

While many might assume that the drop-off occurs as women get married and have children, Bain suggests that marital and parental status do not significantly differ for women who aspire and women who don't.

Instead, according to Bain's research, women lack meaningful recognition and support from managers during the mid-level career period, when they crystalise their aspirations and build - or erode - their confidence.

Women, in particular, do not believe they have an equal opportunity to advance. Only 30 per cent of women in middle management and 24 per cent of women in upper management and executive positions believe that there is equal opportunity to be promoted on the same timeline as men, compared with 51 per cent and 46 per cent, respectively, of their male counterparts.

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

Particularly challenging for women to meet is the notion of what makes an "an ideal worker", which encompasses characteristics like willingness to take on high-profile projects on top of day-to-day work and being adept at self-promotion and networking - criteria which are not necessarily the true keys to success.

"In fact, women judge their own behaviour most harshly. They are about twice as likely as men to believe both that women undersell their experiences and capabilities, and that women do not put themselves forward for challenging roles and assignments," the report said.

The perception that women are not as committed to long hours because of family commitments is also common, with a sizeable 58 per cent of women and 47 per cent of men believing that managing both work and family commitments slow or disrupt women's careers.

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," said Seow-Chien Chew, a partner in Bain's Singapore office.

Look not only at the direct interactions with supervisors but also at the stereotypes and environment a supervisor may help create or dispel. That way, companies will be far more successful in attracting and retaining the next generation of top talent, both female and male, the report concluded.