The paradox of a woman’s ambition

Ambition is often seen as a key ingredient to achieving success and excelling in one’s career. But for women and girls like myself, it’s not as simple. We get criticised for not having enough ambition yet also get criticised for being too ambitious. So which is it? Ultimately, the paradox of a woman’s ambition can impact how we perceive ourselves and how we consequently approach the job market. 

Commonly heard is the idea that women lack ambition, and as a result are less successful in their careers. It suggests men desire and strive for positions of power and status more often than women and that women should simply just be as ambitious as men. For example, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, declared that “until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men”.

However, there’s research that suggests women are in fact not short of ambition, and that also suggests women actually start out as ambitious as men but this erodes over time.

So is it actually a lack of ambition that hinders women? Speaking as a young woman, it seems much more complicated than that. We have to consider what factors contribute to this supposed lack of ambition. 

Firstly, it is important to note that there are different perceptions between a man and a woman’s ambition. This difference stems from gender stereotypes of men being breadwinners and needing to be ambitious to compete in the job market and women’s traditional role of being submissive.

Research has shown that ambition is seen as a positive trait in men, yet a quality that girls shouldn’t aspire to hold. In a professional setting it’s common to associate an ambitious woman with descriptors such as ‘difficult to work with’. There have even been instances where being too ambitious as a woman is considered a turn-off in relationships. But it goes even further. Even as young girls, showing ambition is often associated with being ‘bossy’ or ‘too assertive’.

And if that’s the case, who can blame women for not wanting to be ambitious when they’ve constantly been told it’s bad? It seems reasonable to think that women either don’t identify as ambitious or claim to be ambitious as a result of these negative perceptions.

But even if these negative perceptions don’t cloud a young woman’s ambition, something else plays into its demise. One that resonates with me is lack of confidence and self-doubt, which according to Women Agenda’s 2019 research is one inhibitor to achieving goals. The reasons why self-doubt and lack of confidence exists is, like the differing perceptions of ambitions, because of gender-based norms. Over time, cultural norms related to femininity such as modesty, people-pleasing, and devaluing a woman’s knowledge impact women’s self-perception and their capabilities.

The impact of this on ambition and entering the workforce is substantial. According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, women are more likely to apply to a job if they meet 100% of the requirements, whereas men would apply even if they only partially meet the requirements.

As such, perhaps it’s not necessarily a lack of ambition, but the lack of self-confidence in ones’ abilities that contribute to slower career progression.

The issue becomes more complex when we consider a woman who is already in the workforce. Not only are the negative perceptions and self-doubt present, society’s gender-based structure and expectations continue to impact a women’s ambition and career progression.

For example, “women are also more likely than men to voluntarily step off the career ladder” especially when taking into account traditional gender roles and society’s expectations of family responsibilities and child bearing. But it also goes beyond gendered expectations, it’s the lack of support available for women to develop their career while still wanting to meet these expectations. This includes the lack of support to return to work and the need for better flexible or part-time work options. According to Women’s Agenda, women are still ambitious with their careers when having had children, but can often feel like their “career is on hold due to childcare commitments”.

Michelle Ryan notes that it’s also the lack of “support, mentors or role models to make it to the top”. According to PWC, women need proactive networks of leaders and peers who will develop, promote and champion them at home and in the workplace. As such, there needs to be a shift in attitude about the capabilities and the value of women in the workplace. Women’s Agenda also identified “bad managers and leadership, the ‘boys club’, [and] bullying” as another factor that may hinder the ability for women to achieve their career goals.

Additionally, these difficulties are exacerbated if you are a woman who is culturally or linguistically diverse, or a First Nations woman, or living with a disability, or LGBTIQA+. For example, Mckinsey notes that micro-aggressions and harassment towards women are present in the workforce, but people of colour “are more likely than other women to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence”.

Nowadays, younger women are speaking more openly about their ambitions and career goals. Yet in order to turn them into reality, there requires more to a solution than simply having ambition. An issue this complex and deeply ingrained requires social and structural change from various areas in society.

Change needs to be seen operationally in workplaces such as: applying gender ratios across all leadership positions; redesigning roles and work to enable flexibility; and supporting women during transitional stages of their lives. However, change must also be seen structurally such as by: aiming to remove unconscious bias towards women’s ambitions; reducing the gender pay gap through strategic action; and breaking apart gender-bias traditional expectations of women.

Only then will we break away from this paradox of a woman’s ambition.


This article was written by Hamah Hosen.

Hamah is currently an International Relations and French student at Monash University. She has an avid interest in policy analysis, humanitarian issues, and global development. Hamah aspires to influence and make an impact in the world through an exchange of experiences and information. She believes this can be done through writing articles and advocating for diverse voices to be heard in decision-making. In the future, Hamah hopes she can inspire women to pursue leadership roles, and to see more women lead initiatives and organisations!

Connect with Hamah on LinkedIn.

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