Ambition. Those who have it generally get ahead in the workplace. Those who don’t, aren’t usually as successful—unless they get lucky. Ambition spans gender, race and ethnicity…or so one would think. Unless you are one of those columnists who espouse that women don’t get ahead in business because they lack ambition.
Thankfully, those “in the know” have been very vocal in refuting the notion that women lack ambition. In “The Myth of the Ambition Gap,” former-Catalyst CEO Ilene Lang wrote, “Do women lack ambition? Not on your life! The misguided assumption that women are less ambitious than men puts companies at risk of inadvertently underutilizing talented women and overlooking, or outright dismissing them, for key roles. This is a real loss for companies.” She believes that there are many reasons why women may not get ahead in the workplace, but lack of ambition isn’t one of them.
Similarly, “Busting the Myth that Women Aren’t as Ambitious as Men” by Kathy Caprino takes aim at the cultural problem with ambition. She believes that women are as ambitious as men but shy away from using the term “ambition” or claiming to be ambitious because of the “complicated nuances and connotations of the word ‘ambition.’ [Women] 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, many of these fears are well-founded. Studies have shown that success and likability are positively correlated in men, and negatively correlated in women. Appearing too ambitious can negatively impact women’s success while it is a positive for the success of men. It is culturally expected for men to pursue their highest goals—they have to provide for a family!—while women’s careers often seem somehow less important.
But, Caprino contends, if we were to conduct 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.
Think of the successful women you know. Do you really think they lack ambition and simply fell into their success? A significant workplace milestone will be achieved when women feel free to own up to their ambition. If we all acknowledge our ambition, we may just be able to break down this stereotype once and for all.