May 20, 2024

The Ambition Penalty Is Holding Women Back At Work

One 2020 study linked this backlash directly to women’s ambitions: finding that women who actively pursue leadership positions are more likely to face a decrease in likability than women who were arbitrarily assigned to those roles. Suggesting that it’s not merely the attainment of power, influence or success that causes the penalty but rather the pursuit of these things by women.

“I asked for market value for my position, and suddenly I’m ‘money motivated’ and told I shouldn’t negotiate in the future. ”

“I’m embarrassed to say that I bought into some of these ideas like, ‘The only reason why some women don’t have that experience is that they don’t try, they don’t negotiate’,” said Darra, an attorney in California, who admitted that even she used to buy into the concept of the ambition gap.

And yet when Darra tried to negotiate the salary on a job offer last spring, she saw the ambition penalty in action. “I asked for market value for my position, and suddenly I’m «money motivated”, “maybe I’m not the right fit”, and “I shouldn’t negotiate again in future. ”

I’ve interviewed dozens of women like Darra, who’ve experienced the ambition penalty personally: some have had job offers withdrawn entirely. Nearly all have been disillusioned by the responses to their ambitions. Women like Hope, a Caribbean American woman working in the male-dominated data analytics field. “I did the right things. I went to networking events. I met the right people. I did an internship with my school. One of my degrees is in mathematical finance,” said Hope.

At her first job, surrounded by men, she was only offered low-level roles. When she shared her ideas for innovation, she was told to stop. “I spoke to my supervisor, and he was like, ‘A lot of the females don’t really go for roles that are more analytic based. ’ And I said, ‘So are you saying that females don’t do analytics or are we just not given the opportunity to do analytics? ’ And he was like, ‘Let’s change the subject,’» said Hope.

“The narrative that women can fix the gender pay, wealth and leadership gaps if they were a little more ambitious isn’t just wrong  — it’s harmful. ”

In nearly every conversation, I could hear how hard these women had worked to make themselves unimpeachable. “I am not going to be a woman who doesn’t get paid what she deserves because she didn’t ask for it enough or want it enough or work for it hard enough. ”

The narrative that women can fix the gender pay, wealth and leadership gaps if they were a little more ambitious isn’t just wrong  — it’s harmful. It undermines gender equality by ignoring the massive amount of research that points to ongoing bias and outright discrimination in the workplace. And it collectively gaslights women into thinking the sexism they experience isn’t real. Or that there’s something they’re doing as individuals to cause it.

As for ambition, researchers have found that it’s not a fixed trait.  It’s also not something you simply lose or grow out of, but rather, something that’s either nurtured or damaged by the environment around you. When so-called ‘ambition gaps’ do emerge, they do so not as a result of inherent gender differences or motherhood or other familiar scapegoats but rather, as a result of company culture.

Put simply; women don’t have less ambition than men. Still, women’s ambition is far more likely to be systematically damaged by the daily interactions, experiences, and opportunities (or lack thereof) they face over time. Like getting less credit for the work they do, especially when they collaborate with men. Or having their mistakes are judged more harshly and remembered longer. Or acting on their ambitions only to be met with backlash and penalties.

So much of what women have been told to do to close the so-called “ambition gap” – Be more assertive! Ask for more money! Step into a leadership role! – comes with a penalty. And we wonder why the gender gap has hardly budged in the past three decades. If we keep penalising ambitious women, we can be certain nothing will change anytime soon.

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