Why women downplay their ambition

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Ladies, I’m fired up.

I consider myself a hard-charging feminist power woman. That doesn’t change the fact that there have been times in my life when I’ve felt I had to downplay my ambition, intelligence, and goals in order to fit in (whether that be in society, amongst friends, or in my dating life). I worried that my ambition made me too bossy, or intimidating, or a less desirable mate.

Women are bred to downplay their ambition

Chances are you’ve felt the same at one point or another. Harvard Business School came out with a study that helps explain why we’ve faced this dilemma, and that we’re not alone.

Note: We all know Stanford is a far superior business school, but I have to give Harvard credit for putting out some quality content every now and then (I kid).

The HBS researchers asked top business school admits to rate themselves on their level of ambition, competitiveness, assertiveness, willingness to travel, and willingness to work long hours. Participants also stated their desired post business school salaries and whether or not they had a significant other.

The study had two groups of students. One group was told their responses would only be shared with the career center. The other group was told their responses would be shared with their classmates.

Men and women are equally ambitious (when responses are anonymous)

I’ll start with the (kind of) good news. Male and female students who were told their responses would be shared only with the career center rated themselves equally on willingness to work long hours and travel. Women aspired to slightly lower salaries, but all and all, I guess the results weren’t horrible. At least compared to the second group.

Women downplay their ambition publicly for fear of hurting their chances at a relationship

In the group where students were told their answers would be shared with their classmates, female students (especially the single ones) had depressingly different responses. They revealed lower ratings across all categories. They claimed they wished to travel seven fewer days per month, work four fewer hours a week, and desired $18,000/yr less in salary than the women who answered privately.

Men didn’t vary across the two groups. Shocker.

I call it the Female Ambition Trap

Harvard calls it the “internal marriage tax,” but whatevs.

I promise I’m done with the study babble for now. (That said, if you want to geek out on it, this article has a great summary.)

The results are absolutely appalling. I’m also not surprised by them.

I conducted my own v unofficial study by asking as many of my female business school friends as possible what they thought of the findings.

My graduation from the Stanford Graduate School of Business

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None of them were surprised. However, about half of them believed that this applied to “other women,” not themselves. After all, we all tend to think we’re above average. It’s also possible that they were reluctant to admit they were susceptible (to me and/or to themselves), or that it’s happening without their knowledge.

These are the most badass, resourceful, intelligent, determined women I know. If they downplay their ambition, surely other women do too. I’ve been there myself.

Let’s reject the social stigma around female ambition

Yes, I might sound crazy for suggesting we “reject” gender stereotypes and marriage preferences that have been socialized for hundreds of years. But we have to start somewhere. We won’t make progress by conforming to gender stereotypes and societal norms.

I reject the social stigma around female ambition by writing about my own ambition on Brains over Blonde. FYI, it’s super uncomfortable for me to broadcast my accomplishments and dreams. But if I do it, maybe other women will be less afraid to.

Share your ambitions

Shout them from the rooftops! To everyone you know, of all genders. Be honest, be bold. Start a dialogue around this article. Share your aspirations below. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the more other women will feel comfortable doing so. Let’s bust open the female ambition trap together.

In the meantime, if your ambition scares off a few “potential marriage prospects,” you’ve dodged a major bullet.

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  • MelindaAugust 22, 2017 - 2:25 pm

    I have such a hard time with this. Another part of it for me is that I don’t want to share my ambitions and then fail. Is that gender related as well?ReplyCancel

    • AnnaAugust 30, 2017 - 9:43 am

      It could be. You’re definitely not alone in fearing public failure. What if you started sharing small goals? What’s the worst that could happen if you do fail? My guess is, those close to you will surprise you with love and support! And then maybe you’ll be comfortable sharing bigger goals with them.ReplyCancel

  • AlexaMarch 16, 2018 - 7:50 pm

    I’m currently working in the sporting goods industry, but my dream is to get back to theatre. I am currently working in a job I enjoy, but it’s honestly also a “means to and end,” and I’m alright with that. My goal is to transition to voice acting and film, full-time. If after 1-2 years it doesn’t work out, (as it often doesn’t work out for actresses), then I’ll go back into sporting goods or healthcare, which are the two oter industries in which I’m interested ad have experience. To sum it up, my ambition is to save enough to feel comfortable doing what I really love, trying to make that into a profession. If my #1 dream doesn’t work out, I have a backup plan that will not make me feel like I’m settling, because I truly am passionate about more tan one thing! 🙂ReplyCancel

    • AnnaMarch 19, 2018 - 10:53 am

      GET IT ALEXA! You can’t win big if you don’t take a risk and go for your dreams. I have all the faith in the world in you!ReplyCancel


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