I’ve heard over and over in the past several years frequent reference to the idea that professional women aren’t as ambitious as men. Disappointingly, I even heard Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook (whom I deeply admire) mention this reported “lack of ambition” in women on The Charlie Rose show recently. To Mr. Rose she declared, “Until women are ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men.” There have been scores of articles written on the topic, including a 2004 Harvard Business Review piece, “Do Women Lack Ambition?”
As a very ambitious professional woman who supports the advancement of other ambitious women, I’m truly sick of this myth. I can tell you, from working with and speaking to thousands of professional women in the past eight years, it’s simply not accurate. Ambition is not the issue, and lack of ambition is NOT what holds women back. It’s the COST of ambition – and the struggle women face in pursuing their ambitions -- that is at the heart of why we have so few women leaders today, and why women are achieving less and not reaching as high as men in corporate America.
The more we support this incorrect conclusion, the more disservice we do to the advancement of women. Again, ambition is not the problem; it’s the enormous personal sacrifice women today must make (that men do not have to) in order to reach the top that halts women in their tracks. And it’s the reality that even when women stay on a traditional career path and do “all the right things” they are unlikely to advance as far or earn as much as their male counterparts (see Catalyst’s recent study The Myth of the Ideal Worker).
Only when we address the root problem that keeps women from their professional ambitions, will we pave the way to greater progress.
The Cultural Problem with Ambition
As an executive and leadership coach of hundreds of women each year, I know this: Women do indeed start out their careers with similar levels as men of wanting to be the best and the brightest in their fields. However, research studies that claim to examine women’s “ambition” as a term and a concept won’t reflect that, because of the complicated nuances and connotations of the word “ambition.”
A recent study from the Center for Work-Life Policy showed that at the start of their careers, 47% of young women claim to be “very ambitious” vs. 62% of young men. So we see a difference in self-reported “ambition levels” here even at the beginning of their careers. I hear from professional women each day that the term “ambitious” has negative connotations for them. Women shy away from using this term or claiming (or appearing) to be ambitious. They want to reach the top, but are reluctant to describe themselves as ambitious because they fear it will make them appear arrogant, power-hungry, self-absorbed, with a “win at all costs” mentality. Unfortunately, their fears are well-founded. Success and likability are positively correlated in men, and negatively correlated in women (see Sheryl Sandberg’s TEDTALK on why we have so few women leaders and the Heidi vs. Howard Roizen study at Columbia University). Women must worry about how ambition “looks” because appearing ambitious negatively impacts their success. Men do not face this challenge. On the contrary, it is culturally expected and honored for men pursue their highest goals and do what they can to reach their highest success.
But if we were to conduct solid, well-constructed research around the behaviors that make up “ambition” - mastery of a skill and desiring outward recognition for that mastery – we would see that an equal number of professional men and women start out their careers wanting to reach their highest potential and wanting recognition for their achievements.
What Gets in the Way of “Ambition” for Women
As women age, a bigger problem around “ambition” emerges. In corporate America today, pursuing ambitious goals and outcomes presents deeply challenging choices and personal sacrifices for women that it does not yet generate for men. Many more women have to sacrifice marriage and children in order to become top leaders, while men do not.
Per a 2010 study of the Center for Work-Life Policy, only 32% of women vs. 47% of men over 40 self-report to be “very ambitious.” Why? Because the personal and family sacrifices are too great for women to remain on their most ambitious track. The CWLP study showed that a full 41% of women who actually make it to the executive suite arrive without an intimate partner, and 40% arrive without children.
In a recent New York Times article A C.E.O.’s Support a ka Husband, the author cites a new study “The New C.E.Os,” that looks at women and minorities who are chief executives. The study reveals that of the 28 women C.E.O’s of Fortune 500 companies, only eighteen had children. That’s a far lower rate than the 87 percent of married women in the population at large who have children of their own, according to Census data.
The NYT article states:
“Statistics suggest that aspirants to America’s top corporate jobs had better have a spouse, partner or someone else willing to be devoted to the aspirant’s career. “How do you compete without a spouse? Basically, you can’t,” Richard Zweigenhaft said. Mr. Zweigenhaft is professor of psychology at Guilford College in North Carolina and the co-author (with G. William Domhoff) of “The New C.E.Os.”
My research bears this out as well. Unless women have a solid support network at home, rising to the top is riddled with insurmountable challenges.
What needs to change for women’s ambitions to be achievable?
Women have made far more headway in the workplace than at home. Women are still judged harshly and even “hated” when viewed as aggressive or highly successful in the workplace. And the pressure is still enormous on men to succeed at all costs. Only when our rigid gender roles shift allowing both women and men to honor their authentic choices and longings will we see a change in our current professional and leadership dynamic.
Women will surpass their current rate of 16% in senior corporate leadership in the U.S. only when:
In the end, how can professional women reach the highest levels of corporate leadership?
Stay in the workforce. Stay true to both your personal and professional goals, and find a way to balance what you need and want most. Don’t buy into the myth that you’re not as ambitious as your male colleagues. You are. If you want to be the best in your field, commit to finding a way to honor what you care about most in your personal and professional life. If it’s not possible in your current work situation, find another that will support your advancement.
Make it happen. And ask your employer for effective leadership and executive support and training that will change your existing work culture, and modify how you and others think about women, men and ambition. It’s up to you.
What’s your biggest challenge in pursuing your highest ambitions?