Does ambition hold women back at work?

Men are perceived as having more drive - and that's a problem, says Ann Hyams.

by Ann Hyams
Last Updated: 08 Mar 2018

Do you consider yourself an ambitious person? Are you always striving to reach the next level at work, or setting challenges and goals for yourself in your personal life? Now consider how others around you perceive your level of ambition. Would your friends and colleagues say you had the same level of ambition as you think you have, or is there a ‘gap’?

The gender pay gap has been well publicised recently. New reporting requirements will make all companies with more than 250 employees report their mean and median gender pay gaps from April 2018, increasing measurement and acknowledgement of the issue. However, the reasons behind the persistence of the gap are still debated and largely unknown.

An ONS report in January found that only a third of the gap could be explained by observed differences in the characteristics of men and women, such as tenure and occupation. So what about the elusive two-thirds that can’t be explained?

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Subtle differences between men and women in the workplace can be harder to measure quantitatively, but are just as important. For example, I believe there’s a stark ‘Gender Ambition Gap’ in the workplace. By this I mean the difference between the perception of women’s ambition relative to men’s. I do not mean that women are inherently less ambitious than their male counterparts, however, in a world where ‘he’ who dares (or is perceived to dare) wins, this perception gap means women risk being overlooked in the fight to the top.

There are both internal and external factors that impact perceived levels of ambition, and these must be better understood, and openly addressed, to make a real difference to the advancement of women.


Women are often more risk adverse than men, and this can manifest itself in a perceived lack of ambition. For example, being more cautious about committing to objectives, or setting targets that don’t stretch themselves far enough to make sure they are achievable, preventing ‘failure’, but equally removing the impetus to strive for further advancement. Fear of failure holds many women back, whilst simultaneously making it less likely that we’ll achieve our ambitions in the first place; arguably a greater failure.

I have also noticed a distinct difference in the language used by women and men when explaining their own achievements. Many senior female executives I have spoken with talk about getting to the top through good luck, or being in the right place at the right time. Conversely, I have never heard a man use these phrases.

Instead, reference will be made to their incredible judgement, or unrivalled skills. And I’m not arguing that they’re incorrect – people don’t reach the top by accident – it’s just a shame that many women often believe this about themselves, contributing to a persona which is lacking in self-assurance and ambition.


A perceived lack of ambition can be partially understood when you consider the impacts of external factors on women in the workplace. Last year McKinsey&Company2 found that even at entry level fewer women than men are hired despite making up 57% of college graduates. And because this underrepresentation worsens at every level of the corporate pipeline, by the time you get to the roles immediately before CEO, women only hold 21% of positions, seriously diminishing their likelihood of reaching the top.

The challenges clearly start early on in women’s careers and the resulting lack of senior female role models means it’s easy to understand why even the most ambitious women struggle to see an obvious path to reaching the C-Suite.

I would like to leave you with a story that I heard a few months ago, which perfectly highlights the ingrained problem we have, but might also offer some hope for the future. A mother was explaining the rules of a card game to her eight year old daughter, who listened closely and then asked ‘Why is the King worth more points than the Queen?’ What could her mother say? Kings are always more senior than Queens? Men have always been worth more than women? None of the explanations seemed to make sense when she thought about it, and moreover, it didn’t make a difference to the game to switch the hierarchy, so they played with the Queen as the most senior card. All other rules remained the same and the game itself was unchanged.

It’s clear that we have a long way to go to determine all the contributing factors behind the persistence of the gender pay gap, and consequently begin to eradicate it. However, at least now the right questions are being asked, from large corporates to young girls playing cards. What gender, race, or age we are shouldn’t determine how far or how fast we progress in the workplace and how senior we become. We must open our eyes to women’s ambition: Who knows, given more of a chance we could be the most ambitious cards in the pack.

Ann Hyams is an investment relations manager at Whitbread. This article first appeared on women’s events site Eyedea.

Image credit: JGA/Shutterstock


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