Are women really less ambitious than men, or are they simply stuck between a rock and a hard place due to gender norms?
A recent report by the Pew Research Center shows that in 2022, women earned an average of 82% of what men earned that year—a persistent gender pay gap that’s held steady for the past two decades. Equally as persistent is the theory that gender inequities such as pay gaps exist because women are less ambitious than men, whether inherently so, or due to motherhood or other reasons.
The idea that women are less willing or able to pursue leadership roles and negotiate for higher pay is so deeply embedded in our culture that many simply accept the “ambition gap” as truth. However, recent research is helping to dispel such myths.
For example, a study by Egon Zehnder, a global talent consultancy, finds that “C-suite aspirations have nearly evened out between men and women, with 27% of women aspiring to reach the C-suite compared to 31% of men.”
Another study by BCG likewise finds that women start their careers with just as much ambition as men, but the day-to-day experiences of women at work impact their ambition level over the course of their careers. In other words, they found that “ambition is not a fixed attribute but is nurtured—or damaged—by the daily interactions, conversations, and opportunities that women face over time.”
“The problem with this so-called ‘ambition gap’ is that while it makes for a pithy statement, it obscures a darker truth,” writes Stefanie O’Connell Rodriguez, journalist and author of the Too Ambitious newsletter, in a January 2023 article for GLAMOUR.
“While men are praised and rewarded for their ambitions, women are far more likely to be penalized for acting on theirs.”
She calls this the “ambition penalty: the social, professional, and financial costs women face when asking for more—whether that’s more opportunity, responsibility, or money.”
Viewed through this lens, it’s not women’s apparent lack of ambition that creates gender inequities, but rather all the ways in which women are penalized, both overtly and unconsciously, for pursuing career advancement and success.
The Backlash Against Ambition
“In research, we call this backlash against ‘agentic women’—women who act with dominance and agency,” says Beth Livingston, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Iowa and author of the book Shared Sisterhood. “We see this reflected in the number of leaders who are women or female-identifying who make it to the top of leadership.”
The ambition penalty against women is more likely to arise in “masculinized occupations,” such as the financial industry, when there is a perceived mismatch between what the gender norm prescribes and what the business norm prescribes, according to Livingston.
Backlash can take many forms in the workplace, including financial—e.g., not getting the raise, not getting a promotion, not being assigned plum projects on the leadership track—and social, such as not being invited into important meetings and conversations, not getting face time with important figures, and other forms of ostracism.
“A lot of times when you think of financial leadership, you’re picturing a usually white middle-aged guy in a buttoned-up suit, and that becomes this implicit norm of leadership—your expectation that you’re judging and evaluating other leaders against,” Livingston says. “The more that a person [diverges] from that image—that implicit theory of what a leader should be—the more backlash they might receive. So when women act dominant and assertive—ambitious—it’s seen as what a leader should be but not what a woman should be, and so she ends up facing these sorts of double standards.”
Perpetuating the Problem
When society is conditioned to question the ambition and leadership abilities of women who challenge gender and business norms, even women themselves might end up reinforcing biases, whether intentionally or not.
Livingston suggests that women often perpetuate the problem through a phenomenon called “queen bee syndrome,” when females in positions of authority distance themselves from other females and treat them differently than male counterparts due to their gender.
“What research has shown is that the queen bee phenomenon is really most pronounced [in a] discriminatory environment. And what I mean by that is, there’s a feeling that ‘everybody knows’ that only one woman’s ever going to be promoted,” Livingston says. “In those situations, you have created a type of competition that pits women against each other—because every woman in there knows ‘if I want to reach that place, the only people I have to compete against are other women, because I’m never going to get the man’s role, ever.’
“It is a situationally created environment more than it is something natural to how women behave, and it’s a really critical thing to break that apart,” she adds.
An example of how women may perpetuate the ambition penalty in the credit union industry is when women accept disparities in the composition of credit union boards of directors, says Jamie Strayer, founding partner of CU Strategic Planning and executive producer of Opportunity Knock$ on PBS.
“Accepting this inherently says that among all of our peers who could be candidates for boards, we trust men more than the women. That’s not acceptable,” she explains.
Strayer views trusting the motivation of women as being at the heart of this issue—and also perhaps the key to solving it. “Why is it that women aren’t encouraging one another to run for board positions and advocating for each other? The cultural assumption that men should be providers and women should be nurturers is so pervasive that it’s normal to question the judgment of women who show ambition. It’s not some nefarious plot to keep women down, but there can be an unconscious mistrust of women’s motivations in wanting more for themselves,” she says.
“Women need to be able to trust themselves and each other that by being ambitious, they’re not being selfish, but instead using their best judgment to do what’s right for themselves, their families and their careers,” Strayer adds.
The Importance of Community-Building
Both Strayer and Livingston agree that building a community of mutual trust in the workplace is essential to help improve company culture and disrupt such negative patterns as the queen bee dynamic.
Strayer’s advice for ambitious women at all stages of their careers is to “be selective in the company you keep.” Women should look for opportunities to empower and affirm each other so they can know that their ideas are desired and valued. In that environment of trust, women can grow and build things for themselves, while also being inspired to pay it forward.
Strayer put these ideas into action when founding her own company. As a young professional at the start of her career, she had a boss who would invite her to important meetings to provide learning opportunities. Years later, “I hired that boss, Stacy Augustine, to be the CEO of my company, because she trusted me to be there and created a pathway for me.”
But creating this sort of trust takes practice, says Livingston. “We need to practice our skills to be vulnerable and build true, trustworthy connections with other people,” she explains. “Being authentic with other people is a skill. And we must teach young people in their early careers how to be wrong, how to learn, how to grow, and how to build mutually supportive, authentic connections with people.”
Livingston suggests a way for women to break out of the negative cycle is by consciously speaking in support of other women. “Women don’t get as much backlash when they advocate for other people, so if you can find a group of people where you can advocate for each other, you can use your assertiveness and dominance and competitiveness in a communal way, to advance each other’s interests with less blowback,” she says.
Building trusted connections might even women help close the pay gap. Camille York Adrien, CDFA, AAMS, a financial planner with Clark and York Wealth Management at Raymond James, advises women executives pursuing roles in the C-suite to be proactive in identifying what their next salary target will be. She has found that some women need to “make a little bit of noise” and get people to rally behind them to reach their salary and leadership goals, while others might need to consider leaving their role or company and looking elsewhere in order to advance their career and be recognized for their true value.
To gain support at these moments, York Adrien encourages women, and particularly younger professionals, to “just get out there” and network to develop professional relationships with powerful women who could serve as mentors and advocates.
“It’s been so important for me to have other strong women around that are encouraging and supportive and cheering me on to go after the things that I really want in life,” she reflects. “They also amplify my voice when I’m up against an obstacle and I’m not sure how to navigate through it.”
Having Tough Conversations
Another way to address the ambition penalty in the workplace head-on is by talking about it more openly—although it’s important to find safe spaces to do so.
“Oftentimes the conversation puts the responsibility on women, with the message, ‘negotiate more, be bolder, ask for more.’ And you’re finding that women are doing that, and then they’re being penalized for it,” York Adrien says.
“The conversation needs to shift, and we need to bring a lot more awareness to the reality, which is that [women] can be as bold as they want to, they can negotiate as much as they want to, but there is still some really ingrained oppression that’s happening in the workplace,” she notes.
Workplace affinity groups are a possible resource for women to use when they want to share concerns with colleagues and gather feedback.
“At my place of work, we’ve got a black financial advisors network and a women financial advisors network, so not only am I able to talk about these issues in a safe space, but then I’m also able to educate and bring that back to other advisors … and figure out how to help them see some of the issues,” York Adrien says.
Though it takes confidence and courage, it’s important for women to call out any disconnects between what employers say they want to do to improve workplace culture and equity and what they’re actually doing, says York Adrien. “If the company is saying, ‘Hey, we value diversity and inclusion, and we want to make a difference,’ but then you look at the board of directors and there’s an evident lack of any diversity, clearly they can’t really value that because they’re not implementing it.”
In other words, “It sounds good on paper, but what are they actually doing? What actions are they actually taking?” she asks. “Being able to identify some of those things can really tell you if you’re in the right place for you, and also if the company is in alignment with what they’re saying.”
How Leaders Can Support Women
To be sure, actions will always speak louder than words, especially from top leadership. “You can craft the most PR-friendly statement that you want, but if it is not backed up by making sure that your leadership is representative, everyone will look at your actions and ignore your words,” Livingston says.
“You have to be really honest with yourself about what you’re willing to do, and why, and then execute it the way you would for any other strategic business decision,” she says. “You have to hold yourself as accountable to your representation and culture numbers as you do to your financial performance numbers because it will demonstrate to people what you actually care about. That’s the shift—it can’t just be you tried hard, but that you have an outcome and meet your goals for representation, inclusion, and authentic leadership.”
Strayer has observed that some of the most effective leaders demonstrate “humble leadership” by inviting middle management women into conversations and meetings with CEOs and VPs, to show they validate and trust those women to represent the organization. She encourages leaders to ask, “How can I create pathways that embrace the ideas of other women, that empower them and recognize their contributions, and create true equity opportunities in the future?”
Credit union leaders can stay focused on workplace diversity and culture issues by regularly asking themselves: “‘What are the things that I’m actually doing to help move the needle forward and to make sure that women of color, and women in general, are not being penalized?’” York Adrien says. “If you don’t have any tangible actions that you can point to, then you’re probably contributing to keeping the needle stuck.” cues icon
Amy Freed Stalzer, CAE, is a writer and communications consultant based in the Washington, D.C., area.
Networking Tools for Women
Credit union women can find support and inspiration from their peers through professional networking organizations like the Global Women’s Leadership Network, which has more than 150 Sister Societies in 28 countries dedicated to elevating women’s voices, diversifying board representation, narrowing gender inequality gaps, supporting DEI development, and inspiring the next generation of young leaders in the credit union industry.
Women also can access the CUES Women’s Business Directory to connect with female executives, business owners and service providers serving the credit union industry. And don’t miss the September and November 2023 sessions of CUES RealTalk!, a groundbreaking online discussion series that tackles the important, but often hard-to-discuss, issues impacting women in the workforce.