February 16, 2018
Was your new year resolution to work smarter?
February 19, 2018

Are you limiting your career ambition?

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Women are said to be less ambitious than men. Is that true or do we just express our career goals differently? It’s a familiar lament of many senior managers and HR leaders: “We’d like to appoint more women to senior positions, but they just don’t put themselves forward.” The fault, it’s implied, is with us: we’re just not ambitious enough to make the sacrifices it takes to get to the top.


Following on from our LinkedIn articles on unconscious bias and carrying out a career audit we turn our attention to your ambition what it means, how you express it and some advice on managing ambition when you have competing demands.

The idea of “being driven,” or “relentless ambition” doesn’t sit well with many women. We know we need to be seen to be ambitious to be taken seriously, but… not so much that we stop being true to ourselves, or re-write every idea of what it means to be a woman.

Women, like men, experience reward and pleasure from working hard and achieving goals. We’re not planning and strategising, working long hours and sacrificing time away from our families just to help others and be “nice”. We know – most of us – that opportunities and promotion are not going to come to those who sit back and wait.

But your still want to find a definition of ambition that fits with you.


It may be impossible to measure the desire to improve a skill independent of the individual’s desire for recognition.


Have you lost that confidence of youth?

Researching what ambition actually means to women, psychiatrist Anna Fels found that women disliked describing themselves as ambitious now, but in talking about their childhood ambitions the idea of mastery was a common thread. Their ambition involved mastery of a skill or ability, and being known for that mastery: being recognised by someone, usually many people, for it.

We know that as humans we get a sense of reward and pleasure for doing things well. But mastery demands motivation to keep going, and support and appreciation over time to maintain the effort and encourage us to overcome obstacles and setbacks.

It may not be possible for anyone to achieve their dreams as a loner. A longitudinal study led by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan followed a group from childhood and concluded that recognition is a key component of mastery: “It may be impossible to measure the desire to improve a skill independent of the individual’s desire for recognition.” The problem is that if women’s achievements are consistently ignored or undervalued, we may never manage to push on to achieve our fullest potential.

WHAT TO DO about developing mastery

  • Start the habit of recording your achievements and your progress on developing skills on at least a six-monthly basis.
  • Highlight the skills you want to develop further.
  • If necessary, recruit a friend or colleague to help you identify your increasing skills.
  • If this process isn’t already included in your annual performance review, suggest to your manager how they can work with you on this.

Putting family first

Planning to have a family shouldn’t put the brakes on a woman’s career (somebody has to bear the children) but… it often does.

Women experience (or notice) significant social and organisational discrimination during their late 20s and early 30s, when they’re starting to compete seriously with men. These are the career stages where people make the jump (if they’re going to) into roles where they will be influencing others, not just be responsible for their own work.

This is also at the age when women most frequently marry and decide whether to have children. With all of these pressures it frequently comes down to a choice of whether to try to hold on to your ambitions, or downsize or abandon them.

WHAT TO DO: allocating personal resources

Women have to decide how to allocate resources (essentially their own time, focus and energy) between their own work, time for their family, time to support their partner and their partner’s career, and time for focusing on their own ambitions and career development.

Managing the balance successfully can be achieved – with a phenomenal amount of organisation and commitment. A partner in a consulting firm told Head Heart + Brain how she and her partner meticulously planned their support structure around her career once she realised she could make partner in her firm. Her husband provided support while she worked all-out, and now she is a partner and going off on maternity leave she can support him and his work for a while.

  • Imagine your future. Because so little is mapped out for women (there are fewer role models to inspire us and show us the way), you need to actively position yourself in the future you want.
  • Use the power of envisioningused by successful sports people, who focus on a mental picture of themselves holding the trophy aloft before an important match. Hold on to a picture of yourself managing work and family roles in a satisfying and enjoyable way.
  • Women also have too manyroles: innovative professional, independent wage-earner, caring mother, efficient employee, supportive partner, design-savvy homemaker… It falls nearly entirely on you, as a woman, to carve out a life for yourself with adequate meaning and a clear purpose, with values, priorities, and a clear sense of identity.
  • Push for practical changes: most organisations are still designed around an assumption that someone else takes care of home and family life. And – ironically – the networking opportunities which might be a powerful encouragement to working women are often after-work drinks or dinner. Propose opportunities that work for you: working lunches; coordinating attendance of training courses; sharing commuter time with people who live near you…


For many women there comes a point in their career when they face a decision about whether they’re going “man-up” and be prepared to play by the boys’ rules in order to get ahead.


Deciding which rules to play by

For many women there comes a point in their career when they face a decision about whether they’re going “man-up” and be prepared to play by the boys’ rules in order to get ahead.

A woman surgeon, for example, who repeatedly had to ask theatre staff to put out the specialised operating instruments she required, tells of a defining “throwing her toys out of the pram” moment when she upended a tray of sterilised instruments on the floor. “It was a ridiculous power-play: exactly the sort of thing that male surgeons do. I’m ashamed of it. But a male surgeon  would never have had to repeat the request. After that they always laid out the instruments I needed.”

You don’t like to be defined as “ambitious”

“When you say ‘ambitious woman’ there’s a judgy tinge to it that doesn’t happen for men,” says New York Times writer and author Stephanie Clifford. “If all you hear about a woman is that she’s ambitious, you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her.”

I’m not really ambitious – I just like to do a good job.

I hate to promote myselfmy work should stand for itself.”

It’s not about me; it’s about teamwork.

These are examples of how women executives have described their ambitions to Head Heart + Brain. They are uniquely female ways of speaking about ambition: men do not say these things. And what’s important is that these responses come from very successful women who are senior in their careers, who might be expected to have acquired sufficient power, or self-confidence, or allies in the organisation, or a thick-enough skin, to own their ambition.

Which suggests that their reluctance to broadcast it is born of experience, and is perhaps a wise camouflage strategy.


Women may not want to own the label of ambition – but could be quietly prepared to do everything that’s needed to make it to the top.


Are you opting out… or avoiding the flak?

Women may not want to own the label of ambition – but could be quietly prepared to do everything that’s needed to make it to the top. Perhaps we understand quite clearly that to exhibit male-type ambition invites open hostility.

In scenes reminiscent of The Apprentice, one research study showed that when men and women took turns assuming leader and non-leader roles whilst performing a problem-solving task, the women consistently received more negative facial reactions than positive ones.

A bit of glum-face and eye-rolling doesn’t sound too serious. But experienced day in and day out it serves to depress women’s judgements of the value of their contributions and their prospects of doing well. It certainly doesn’t provide the recognition to motivate ongoing mastery.

Research demonstrates the social context is crucial: women will be much more open about seeking and competing for appreciation and recognition when they are with other women. But women are socialised to modify their behaviour – toning down the high-fives and the whoop-whoops – when they are competing directly with men.

Getting into a slanging match with unsupportive colleagues never plays well on The Apprentice, and it doesn’t work well in real life either. You’ll find more effective techniques below in WHAT TO DO to avoid a backlash.

The centre of success

Psychiatrist Anna Fels identifies another obstacle for women in terms of the 20 commonly identified traits of femininity as defined in the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). This is the standard test used for assessing gender roles developed at Stamford by the late psychologist Sandra Bem. The feminine characteristics – such as being yielding, loyal, compassionate, flatterable, sensitive to the needs of others – are all about support and relationships.

By contrast, the BSRI characteristics of masculinity are largely self-determined, such as being individualistic, dominant, ambitious, analytical, defending one’s beliefs, and being willing to take risks.

Men, it seems, can be masculine by themselves; women can’t be feminine without being reflected in the eyes of other people. This may be why women don’t set themselves at the centre of their success, and why we hear so many women attributing their success not to mastery and recognition but to luck.


It is possible: ambition is not an innate quality we’re either born with or we’re not.

The ‘new’ rules

It is possible: ambition is not an innate quality we’re either born with or we’re not. Or a valuable commodity we might squander and never regain. But rediscovering your ambition might involve a more careful choice of employer and possibly making a sideways move.

College women in the US have been shown to be identifying more with masculine traits than they have in the past – without losing any of their female identity. They share goals such as becoming an authority in their line of work, obtaining recognition from colleagues, and being financially successful.

A survey by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) of 200,000 employees, including 141,000 women from 189 countries, found women are just as ambitious as men at the outset of their careers, and their ambitions are constrained not by family status or motherhood but by their organisations.

BCG found that among employees aged under 30 there was little difference in ambition between men and women. The strength of ambition waned in both sexes over time, but women’s ambition eroded significantly faster than men’s and (predictably) faster at organisations with a poor record of gender diversity.

But at organisations rated as progressive there was almost no ambition gap between women and men aged 30 to 40, and 85% of women sought promotion, compared with 87% of men.

Matt Krentz, co-author of the report, believes this shows that ambition is not a fixed trait: “It is an attribute that can be nurtured or damaged over time through the daily interactions and opportunities employees experience at work.”

HOW TO re-kindle your own ambition

If you lost your sense of ambition and it’s not just because of the organisation’s inclusion and diversity policies do the following:

  • Get back in touch with what excited you when you started your career, reviewing old performance reviews, and your C.V. can remind you of what was important.
  • Talk to friends and colleagues your worked with who shared your goals and ambition.
  • Revisit your purpose and career values. Or start these afresh.
  • Revisit the career audit and focus on what is draining you verses what is energising you and make plans to increase the energising activities.
  • Talk to people about your ambition, this doesn’t have to be in a boasting tone, the more matter of fact you are the easier it becomes to have a conversation about it. Most of the judgements come from others when they sense but don’t really understand your goals.


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