Why ambitious women are still being penalized at work

Female workers are often judged for aspiring to leadership positions due to gender stereotypes, say experts


Although the percentage of women in management positions continues to rise, there is still a very wide gender gap at leadership levels. Part of this problem is due to the misconception that women are not as ambitious as men. A study from the Boston Consulting Group underscores this issue, pointing out that the real problem is that ambitious women are punished and stigmatized. This, in turn, makes it much more difficult for them to reach leadership positions.

Isabel Aranda, an expert in coaching and professor at the EAE Business School in Spain, explains that “when a woman openly declares that she wants to reach the top, she is branded as ambitious, a careerist.” She explains that women are judged much more harshly than their male colleagues who have the same goals. “Prejudices exist, but they are just that, prejudices that have built up and become widespread, but for no good reason.”

Aranda, who works with young college students as a professor, points out that “although things are not the same as they were 30 years ago, there is still significant bias against women.” As an example, she mentions some attitudes that she has noticed among her students: “I teach a master’s degree, and when a girl says that she wants to be the CEO of a company, there is murmuring in the class and stares that seem to say ‘Would you look at her?’”

Another factor that prevents women from being openly ambitious are the gender stereotypes associated with leaders. Sara Esteban, a professor of gender studies at the Complutense University of Madrid, explains that “ambition and competitiveness are traits, so to speak, that are traditionally associated with the male gender role. I have participated in several projects to analyze these issues and, although fortunately things are changing, and we are seeing more and more female role models in leadership positions, they are still concepts that mean strength in men and are punished in women.”

Inequality start long before women even try to reach a high-level position within a company. Data collected by institutions such as Harvard show that during the selection processes, women are already being penalized for being firm about their conditions or having high job aspirations. “There are many structural barriers that hinder the development of women,” says Sara Esteban. “There are careers, first of all, where there are far fewer women than men. For example, the so-called STEM careers, which include science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The gender gap must be closed now.” She points out that some men have very limited contact with women: there may be no other female student in their university course, and later, in the workplace, they may have no female colleagues. “It is still very difficult for a woman to become CEO of a large technology company,” she says.

What’s more, according to several investigations compiled by the NGO Lean In, it is harder for female managers to win the respect of their workers. They also tend to be seen as less likable than their male counterparts and be questioned more. However, when companies create and promote an inclusive work culture, women do show interest in promotions. That’s why Aranda believes it’s important to have active equality policies that force companies to change their dynamics. “People have cognitive biases, and one of them is that we trust people who are like us more. Since men usually make the decisions, they prefer to have other men by their side, because they understand each other better. That dynamic should be changed, because the more women are present, the more opportunities there will be for more to arrive.”

Having female role models and making their achievements visible is important. “We know, for example, from the studies that have been carried out, that female leadership is more participatory, more decisions are made thinking about the well-being of the team or looking to make a social impact,” says Esteban. “And that has been linked to very good results within companies. So, it is also important to focus on those advantages.”

But there is a paradox. While people are encouraged to seek job opportunities by building their personal brand and online presence, women suffer more online harassment than men and are often the target of social media smear campaigns. As a result, women in leadership positions tend to limit their online exposure. Publicly taking on traditionally male roles without being judged, is, as Esteban points out, a very complex matter: “The feeling of equality has to come from yourself. And once you have internalized it, you have to project it and act accordingly.”

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