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Whenever I write about the ambition penalty the social, professional and financial costs women face when asking for more — I invariably hear some version of the following:
“The worst of it comes from other women. It’s much harder for me, as a woman, to land a job, negotiate a higher salary or get a promotion when the hiring manager or boss is a woman.”
As much as I’d like to roll my eyes and say, “Here we go again, blaming the problem on women,” the truth is women do sometimes punish other women for their ambition in the same ways that men do.
While that fact doesn’t negate or disprove the ambition penalty in any way, it can help us better understand the issue.
The backlash women, gender-nonconforming individuals and people of color receive in response to their ambitions is not some kind of battle of the sexes playing out on an individual level — man vs woman, woman vs woman, me vs you. It’s an extension of our historically straight, white, cis-male patriarchal power structure that incentivizes all of us to uphold the status quo and push back against anything that threatens it, even when we ourselves are part of the so-called “out” group.
In other words, in a patriarchal system, men and women penalize ambitious women.
Sure, most of us aren’t sitting around thinking about how we can make sure more cis, straight, white men gain access to even more power and resources; in fact, we might be actively trying to advocate for the opposite. But even the most equitable intentions can have trouble overriding our deeply entrenched unconscious biases, assumptions and expectations.
Take the famed “Howard” vs “Heidi” study from Columbia Business School as an example. The professor presented half the class with a case study using the name “Heidi” and the other half of the class the same case study with the name changed to “Howard.” While students rated Howard and Heidi as equally competent, they were more likely to reject Heidi, finding her unlikable for her assertive leadership qualities, while using the same qualities to rate Howard favorably.
It’s the familiar “I would vote for a woman, just not that woman” sentiment in action.
A 2010 Harvard study had similar findings. Male politicians who were perceived to be power-seeking were judged to be strong, tough and competent by study participants while female politicians perceived to be power-seeking were seen as unsupportive and uncaring — eliciting contempt, anger and even disgust from study participants. Importantly, negative reactions to power-seeking women were equally likely among all study participants, regardless of gender.
We can better understand these responses through the context of the cultural norms and expectations that, however outdated, still largely govern our perceptions of success and influence in America. Think: the idea that men should be strong, aggressive and dominant — traits that align with power and leadership. And that women should be nurturing, warm and supportive — traits that align with subordination.
Defying these social and cultural norms that dictate who should have power (basically, cis, straight, able-bodied white men) and who shouldn’t (everyone else) carries penalties that range from being labeled “unlikable” to being denied job and leadership opportunities.
“It’s a double standard that we’re taught to hide ambition, to diminish it, to be ashamed of it — or else we’ll be seen as power-hungry. We never say that about men.
By praising ambition in men and vilifying ambition in women, it becomes socially acceptable for men to pursue power and costly for women to do the same.
While in 2021 these forces are rarely explicit, they continue to govern so many of our interactions: It’s why we sometimes respond to our own ambitiousness with shame and discomfort. It’s why women and men alike penalize ambitious women.
This system that selectively rewards and penalizes ambition is built on the expectation that white men should hold power and women should serve them, and it disproportionately keeps women, minorities and historically marginalized communities from pursuing their ambitions. Because their ambitions are a threat to the status quo. A status quo of white, male patriarchy in which ambition from anyone else is a threat.
Understanding our own ambition and our relationship to it through this framework can help us better understand that women’s ambition isn’t the problem. The problem is what our culture does to ambitious women.
While Too Ambitious is a space dedicated to exploring this relationship between ambition and identity, it is also a space to support and champion ambition across race, class and gender identity.
Because it’s true: Women’s ambition is a threat to the status quo. But it’s a status quo that needs to be threatened.
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Until next time!
Image: Ijubaphoto/E+ via GettyImages