Women, Gender, and Ambition

Posted on October 26, 2008. Filed under: Academic Publishings, Corporate |

Fels, Anna. Do Women Lack Ambition? Harvard Business Review. April 2004. Pgs. 50-60.

In addressing whether or not women lack ambition, author Anna Fels highlights many different characteristics that may affect women’s pursuit of recognition and ambition. She does this by first evaluating the pursuit of childhood dreams and its external factors such as support and guidance and discusses its progression throughout adulthood, conveying the negative gender-biased influences against women. The two overlapping elements were mastery of a special skill and recognition.

The word “ambition” implies two separate meanings for women and men. According to Fels, this difference in definition and understanding is rooted in socialization and the practice of supportive reinforcement toward children at an early age. “Childhood ambitions were direct and clear. They had a delightfully unapologetic sense of grandiosity and limitless possibility…there was a plan that involved a real accomplishment requiring work and skill, and there was an expectation of approval in the form of fame, status, acclaim, praise, or honor (52).” However, as children age, boys continue to receive the same level of recognition, if not more, whereas girls received less. As children mature and enter the academic systems, girls continue to receive lower levels of recognition and praise compared to boys.

Consistent documentation proves that males receive more recognition than females in school and in the workplace. According to Fels, nursery schools act as structural foundations for which this phenomenon is founded, in that boys receive more attention, direction, and instruction than girls from their teachers. This observable fact carries through to grammar school and college. Throughout college, teachers allow and encourage male domination of classroom participation, even though there are proportionately more women than men pursuing higher education. In the professional setting, characteristics that were characterized as being typically male were rated higher than those assigned to women.

It is also important to consider the development of ambition and mastery. Ambition is fueled by continuous support and guidance in which mastery is completely dependent upon, using ambition as the foundations of mastery, and consequentially, recognition. “An evaluating, encouraging audience must be present for skills to develop…It is vital for the expertise to be recognized by the others (53).” However, women receive lower levels of these attributes, thus increasing the likelihood that women will not receive the recognition they deserve.

Psychologist Jerome Kagan and Howard Moss used a longitudinal study examining the relationship between recognition and mastery. This study followed each participant from childhood through adulthood, confirming that mastery and recognition are hand-in-hand. “Without earned affirmation, long-term learning and performance are rarely achieved (54).” This confirms with the two elements Fels described earlier as being critical to leadership development, both of which are lacking for women. Fels proposed the following question: ‘what’s dashing women’s dreams?’ Several factors unfolded, including; attributing them to luck, deflection, withdrawal, gender expectations, or homosocial affirmation.

Fels references Sylvia Rimm’s best-selling book See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, and highlights a couple passages portraying successful professional women attributing their successful careers to luck and being in the right place at the right time, or in other words, being too modest. Women are more apt to deflect recognition rather than accepting it because accepting it may be construed as expressing high-levels of non-gender conforming poise and self-confidence.

However, women exhibit high levels of homosocial affirmation. “According to social context: Girls and women may openly seek and compete for affirmation when they are with other women – for example, in sports or in all-girl academic setting (54).” Social context suggest that women would rather compete amongst themselves than against men, thus competing against a smaller piece of the pie, allowing men to openly challenge and engage in leadership activities. Social context also demonstrates women’s orientation to complement male counterparts as opposed to challenging them. Unfortunately, in order to gain recognition and be seen as feminine, women must unconsciously forfeit recognition and resources.

One method of gender description is the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). This is a 60-descriptive adjective test, providing certain adjectives that had previously been classified as being either masculine or feminine, and are used to evaluate the conscious/unconscious assignment of traditional feminine and masculine traits. Results show that the concept of femininity places relationships as its focal point, meaning that women must provide something for another, albeit a husband, boss, child, etc. “Giving is the chief activity that defines femininity (56).” On the contrary, the male identity is based on independence and the ability to influence others. Fortunately, today’s college-aged women are beginning to identify with traditionally-assigned masculine traits; however, research has not been able to conclude how this shift has occurred.

Although this positive social advancement is growing stronger, it comes at the expense of home or work life. Women must “have first satisfied the needs of all their family members: husbands, children, elderly parents, and others, (58)” before fulfilling ‘ambitious’ endeavors. To combat this belief, Fels proposes 5 recommendations and observations; organize, don’t expect things to fall into place, provide for structures of recognition, blow your own horn, and to realize it’s never too late.

Fels also reminds us that recognition and mastery are not the only factors in leadership development. Women must also believe that they will succeed. “Boys and men, by contrast, have repeatedly been shown to have an inflated estimation of their capabilities, (59)” thus providing them with an inherent belief system that helps to stimulate ambition. Women on the contrary, are more likely to abandon their ambitions because their goals are not satisfying enough and don’t receive adequate recognition for them. Today, most women do not encounter this problem until they have entered the workforce and are threatened with career and or life ultimatums.

This article seems to agree with this weeks readings (Elsass and Graves – Demographic Diversity), where they evaluate diverse decision-making groups. In this article, research demonstrates that women and racial minorities are marginalized and denied access to their full potential. In conclusion, Fels’ article concludes that recognition, mastery, and ambition are interdependent, and are each critical to women’s leadership development. By using the BSRI and social context theories, Fels proves that women do not lack ambition, but rather, lack the resources necessary for success.


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