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Double-edged workplace ambition: Good for men, bad for women

Ambition is natural, but men and women are not always treated the same for displaying it. That's an issue for leaders to acknowledge and address.

6 min read


Double-edged workplace ambition: Good for men, bad for women

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Ambition is what sparks individuals to achieve. It propels them forward because it is what makes them want to change the status quo. Ambition is positive for all business leaders unless you are a woman.

The recent interest in which woman Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president, would pick for his running mate has cast a light on the double standard women face. Those candidates who have been open about their interest and a future presidential election have been criticized as being too ambitious. By contrast, male politicians receive relatively little criticism for seeking higher office.

Bottom line: Men are rewarded for being ambitious; women are discouraged from showing ambition and even punished for it.

Why does ambition hurt women? 

Three women colleagues — two consultants and one CEO, all of whom work with women leaders — weighed in on the double standard.

Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a leadership development and coaching firm, says, “Women might show up as overly ambitious because they consistently try to prove their value. Women are promoted based on past performance, and men on potential.” This is not merely opinion.

“Linkage’s research has identified this as the single biggest hurdle based on 360 [degree] data from thousands of women across the last five years; because women have always had to work harder than men for the promotion, they work to the point of exhaustion, hoping that by doing more — instead of letting go of control, asking for help or saying no — they will eventually be rewarded.”

“Being seen as ambitious works against women because of gender bias, pure and simple,” says Alaina Love, president of Purpose Consulting. “We’re evaluated based on conflicting requirements — that we deliver in our work roles with the same level of capability as men, but behave in concert with the societal norms ascribed to females (showing empathy, being deferential, soft-spoken, retiring, etc.). When accomplishing a goal requires assertiveness, it’s a trait largely valued when demonstrated by men, yet women are more often negatively labeled for exhibiting the same behavior.”

“Women are expected to be collaborative and to nurture others — and indeed they most often are,” says Sally Helgesen, co-author with Marshall Goldsmith of the international best-seller “How Women Rise.” “Being ambitious requires identifying what you want to achieve or contribute and then pursuing it with energy and focus. This does not necessarily require undercutting others, but when women exhibit this kind of focus, they are often viewed as overly competitive, selfish or ruthless because of the underlying expectation, which for women is always framed as either/or.”

Helgesen explains, “Women spend far too much time trying to demonstrate that they are not ambitious- that they are wonderful people who will never threaten anyone else’s position because they don’t have a selfish bone in their body and always put others first. The result is that they focus considerable energy on trying to manage the perceptions of others, which, of course, lie outside of their control.” 

How to abolish the stigma against women in leadership

For some women, ambition is regarded as a stigma. “I suggest that it’s not our job to fix the bias in others, but to call it out when we see it and demand more, whether it’s happening to us or to another woman,” says Love.

“Every time we marginalize women who ‘don’t fit the mold,’ we compromise the pursuit of the diverse insight and perspective that fuels innovation,” she continues. “When individuals in decision-making positions are consistently labeling women negatively. Then the organization, and I daresay the country, loses.”

Helgesen, who has taught and written about women in leadership for over three decades, advises women “to use those energies to articulate what you most want to contribute to the world, identify who you might engage to support you, and pursue your goal as strategically as you can. The ambition charge will lose its sting and power when women stop fearing it.”

“It’s up to organizations — not the women themselves — to create an environment where more and more women inhabit visible leadership roles, demonstrating that women can be both powerful and likable,” says McCollum. This commitment requires “culture [change] and executive action. Stereotypes and biases exist in darkness. The more that organizations can give women visible power, the easier it will be to dismantle the bias.

“Organizations do this in part by giving women and their ideas equal time and by making sure women are given the stretch opportunities that allow them to develop as leaders,” she adds.

Double standard. Double harm.

Ambition is what it is. To ascribe negative aspects does a disservice to women. It encourages them to hang back to hide their talents so they will not be labeled as “too ambitious.” It also prevents them from seeking to assert their expertise and may prevent some from being promoted into senior management positions.

Fewer women in leadership positions harms not only women but also their organizations. It robs them of the skills and talents the organization needs to achieve its mission. And when that happens, everyone suffers.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.

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