The double bind of female ambition

by Jul 10, 2017

Female ambition is still a dilemma for many women

We push women to be ambitious and aim for the top, but does being openly ambitious actually put women in a double bind? Let’s look at the studies that find how we actually look down on female ambition.

female ambition

If a man said he wanted to have a great job, maybe CEO of a company, with a beautiful wife, happy, healthy, well-educated children and comfortably off, no one would think twice about it. So why would we struggle when women say the same thing? Not that they would of course – or maybe very exceptionally. Female ambition doesn’t always go down so easily.

Cultural context

Psychiatrist Anna Fels reports in her book “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives” that women associate ambition with selfishness and manipulation. They feel constrained by social context to own and pursue their goals. For many, being ambitious is connected with bragging and unrealistic expectations, which may never materialise. They may talk about being ”happy” and “fulfilled” yet very often fail to put a price tag on those ambitions of “nice” homes, vacations, private schools and nights out with friends and family. Culturally we are not comfortable when women are ambitious and penalize them for being open about it.

But new generations of women are challenging the status quo and the negative vibe around being perceived as an ambitious woman. Young women today have a greater chance to achieve their goals and feel less threatened by any backlash than their mothers. They are more likely to share their ambitions with their boss, although some are still reluctant to communicate their goals to a potential romantic partner. Research carried out by Harvard Business School within an elite MBA cohort indicated that women were less willing to declare their ambitions in terms of their ideal jobs, salary, hours worked, and travel publically when there are men in the audience.

Read: Women put a price tag on your ambitions 

Ambition blow back

The findings indicate that those who shared their goals in front of men displayed less ambition publicly than when answering questions on an anonymous basis. In the anonymous part of the survey, 68% of single women in the all-female groups indicated they wanted a high salary, compared to just 42% when the results were visible to men. 79% of those in the all-female group chose a career that had fast-track promotion opportunities, compared to just 37% in the group where men were listening.

The study suggests:

“Single women shy away from actions that could improve their careers to avoid signalling undesirable personality traits to the marriage market”

Another study conducted by Time and Talk Simple into professional drive among women produced some interesting stats.

  • 59% of women regretted at some point in their lives not being more ambitious with only 20% saying they felt embarrassed to have ambition recognised
  • 60% of women say they are more ambitious than their mothers and 45% more ambitious than their fathers
  • 70% felt that ambition is a character trait that is developed rather than innate

Read: 5 ways companies can attract and retain female talent

Back to context

So it won’t come as a surprise that research from Boston Consulting has revealed that it is not that women are inherently lacking in ambition but rather their ambitions are killed off or stifled in organisations that do not support gender balance.  66% of women aged 30 to 40, indicated that they wanted a leadership role in companies that weren’t seen as making progress in gender diversity. This is compared  85% of women who worked at companies they felt were making progress.

So with a complete loop to context, in environments where ambitious women are encouraged and recognised women flourish. Where female ambition is perceived negatively they experience backlash and women down play their goals and expectations.


Want to build your female talent pipeline with ambitious women? Contact 3Plus now!

Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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