Do Women Lack Ambition?

Society’s misguided perceptions and expectations are what make many women fear ambition. Ambitious women worry about being judged by society as a bad wife or a bad mother. Because studies show that men tend to avoid female partners with characteristics usually associated with professional ambition, single women fear being viewed as undesirable mates. 

– Caroline Castrillon

Psychologist Anna Fels, in an article in the Harvard Business Review in 2004 asked the question “Do Women Lack ambition? (1)   This question about career-based ambitions was posed as many middle class (white) women who had obtained the skills at University required to pursue their ambitions had failed to realise them,  or had given up them up entirely. Was this something innate to women or was it a response to environmental factors? One thing she noticed was that women tended to distance themselves from recognition of their efforts, preferring to attribute their successes to luck or other people. She found this behaviour perplexing since the desire for recognition is a basic human need that’s necessary to learn and develop to skills, and a primary force motivating ambitions.

Fels mentions that competitiveness and the desire for success and recognition are displayed by girls and women, but that these traits are context-dependent such as in all-female environments or for roles that complement rather than compete with men. However when it comes to competing directly with men, many women choose to defer and back away. These acts of deference are not examples of innate behaviour, i.e. a sign of “natural” difference between the genders, it is a response directly related to largely unconscious and pervasive cultural ideals, which affects how other people interact and value women, and ultimately how women acknowledge and value themselves. Commonplace and subtle social interactions, or microencounters, as well as blatant sexism, over time build and reinforce gender roles and expectations for gendered behaviours in line with cultural norms which idealise femininity in terms of giving and nurturing, self-sacrifice, deference to male power and people-pleasing behaviours that also include accepting little recognition and even the devaluing of their knowledge. All this leads to women thinking that their own desire for success is seen as being pointless as well as unfeminine self-aggrandisement, egotististical, and selfish as well

Psychologically, this picture often creates for women poor self-esteem, self-doubt and a lack of confidence that often manifests as a fixation on perfectionism, feeling like an impostor, and the chronic underestimation of a woman’s own abilities.

Additionally, pursuing one’s ambitions exposes women to negative criticism within the workplace as well as from family and social peers, where their leadership and ambition is seen through a negative lens, where the same traits are seen positively in men but negatively in women. This reinforces women’s fears of being seen as a bad woman, wife and mother, or even as a bad employee. While young white middle class women experience more equal opportunities in education and training, and in finding a career, they experience social and institutional discrimination, often in the form of unconscious bias once they start to compete in the workplace. Overt societal sexism compounds these fears.

I was curious after reading Fel’s article, if there was still a need in 2020 to write something about woman and ambition. A quick scan of the internet shows that despite some positive change, the gender gap is still significant and women are still failing to pursue their ambitions. I even discovered a recent article that references Anna Fels’ writing. Marriage, having children and even having elderly parents impact on the choices that women make in regards to continue to follow, modify or abandon their own ambitions. While these situations can impact men’s choices, for women there is also social pressures to adopt more traditional “feminine” behaviours or roles which in practical terms means being the partner who sacrifices their time to see to the needs of family members, and do housework. In contrast male employees generally don’t experience guilt and mental anguish around having a family when making decisions to compete for higher responsibilities and positions in the workplace, and that is likely because studies have shown that women are often expected to work, run their households and look after their family’s needs without their partner’s help. Depressingly the quote above from Caroline Castrillon (3) shows that little has changed in the 16 years since Anna Fels wrote her article.

However there are changes that have been worthwhile and may lead to overall better universal working conditions and work culture: more women in senior positions, flexible working hours, working from home, and paid paternity leave bring positive change. Currently it’s still a bit of a Catch-22 situation – there aren’t enough women at the very top of corporate career ladders so people have little or no experience, positive or negative, of having female authority figures in the workplace. If women don’t see it they then can’t model it for themselves and fears can’t be shaken off more readily. And not just white women either, also women of colour and non-European heritage, and women with disabilities too.

It really is time that we stopped conflating femininity with womanhood, and masculinity with manhood. Femininity and masculinity are societal ideals not biological attributes, and where overlaps exists are these actually relevant? What’s important is a person’s potentialities, especially in the workplace.


(1). “Do Women Lack Ambition?”, Anna Fels. Harvard Business Review, April 2004. https://hbr.org/2004/04/do-women-lack-ambition © 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing. Accessed 22 Feb 2020.

(2) “The Ambitious Woman: 7 Habits Successful Women Have in Common,” Kelly Spears. BetterHelp, updated 30 January, 2020. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/ambition/the-ambitious-woman-7-habits-successful-women-have-in-common/ © 2020 BetterHelp. Accessed 23/02/2020.

(3) “Why Ambition Isn’t A Dirty Word For Women,” Caroline Castrillon. Forbes, 28 July 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2019/07/28/why-ambition-isnt-a-dirty-word-for-women/#5d219d76e07c © 2020 Forbes Media LLC. Accessed 23/02/2020

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