The Ambition Gap

Recently I attended my sister’s high school graduation. As each of my sister’s classmates were walking up to get their certificates, the presenter told the audience what each of them wanted to become after finishing school. One of the things that struck me was the difference in career choices between the girls and the boys. For the boys, computer and engineering type of jobs dominated. For the girls,  nursing, parenting, and education were the most often mentioned career interests. I found myself thinking it was such a shame that so many of the girls weren’t aspiring to more.

A few weeks later, I found myself pondering my own subconscious questioning of their career choices. Why was it that my gut reaction was that these girls could do more? I don’t actually think that a nurse is inferior to a doctor, or a teacher inferior to a CEO. Why was I thinking that the girls, especially, should be more ambitious in their career aspirations?

Via a post at Feministe, I recently stumbled across an article called ‘The Ambition Myth: Debunking  a common excuse for the gender wage gap,’ written by Bryce Covert. Covert talks about the ambition gap – the idea that women simply don’t want the same high-powered careers as men, often putting family above their jobs – as an excuse, and looks at some recent research that disproves that idea. She concludes by saying:

Assuming that women have themselves to blame for the wage gap is an easy conclusion, because it doesn’t ask us to think the treatment of women in the workplace. In fact, women show just as much enthusiasm for getting ahead as their male peers. Choices aren’t the only thing holding back women’s earnings. Bias is happening, too, even if it’s uncomfortable to call it out.

Over at Feministe, guest writer Nisha Chittal argues that the ambition gap isn’t something that can be dismissed off the bat. Chittal doesn’t argue that gender bias in the workplace doesn’t exist – but rather, that women are also taught from an early age to put more value on being nice, out of fear of being ‘the office bitch.’ She writes:

What I do notice every day is that most women have been taught from an early age to be nice, above all else. To watch your tone. To not be too aggressive. To not be too greedy. To share the credit for their achievements. To be modest. And as girls grow into women, they internalize those messages and carry the “nice girl” message into their careers. Most women I know constantly wrestle with how to reconcile their high ambitions with the conflicting messages they’ve received to be likeable, and not too aggressive.

There’s a lot of truth to both perspectives here. There is obviously still a huge gap in the workplace between men and women in terms of income, promotions, chances of getting hired in the first place, etc. Often women are seen as less reliable than men for the sole reason that they may decide to start a family one day (and of course will bear the brunt of the parenting). Female graduates in Australia earn significantly less than equally qualified male graduates upon entering the workforce. The statistics for the gender pay gap are irrefutable.

I don’t think that you can name one single reason here.  As Covert points out, the ‘ambition gap’ is often used as an excuse to hide discrimination, by reinforcing the kind of essentialist idea that (all) women just have ‘different priorities’ to (all) men. But I also agree with Chittal that many women are still conditioned differently to men, and acculturated to place more value on being nice and likeable, and these are considered to be ‘mutually exclusive’ with ambition.

However, I think there is one issue that isn’t being tackled here, and it has to do with how we’re framing this whole discussion. It’s the underlying assumption that ‘ambition’ is something that we (as people) need to be more worthwhile, and that there are certain jobs and positions and careers that are considered more valuable than others. When we talk of women needing to be more aggressive in asking for promotions, or more outspoken to get that top job, we’re implicitly suggesting that those higher salaries, higher levels of power are all that is valuable.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it is entirely necessary to have more women in positions of power. We need more female politicians, professors, CEOs and managers, to create a better and more equitable gender balance in our society. But there is also a problem in the way we frame success and ambition in this debate, a problem in why my immediate reaction to a girl wanting to become a nurse was ‘why only a nurse and not a doctor?’ It’s the way that we value certain types of work over others, and see certain jobs as more successful and more prestigious than others. And more often than not, the types of work that are under-valued are the fields that women dominate in the workforce, the ones that aren’t characterised by aggression and power. Jobs such as nursing, education, service industry work.

I’m steadfast in my opinion that we need to openly and cohesively tackle workplace bias and gender inequality in high-powered positions. But we also need to re-think the way we conceptualise what work is valuable and what work isn’t. What careers are considered successful and which ones are met with ‘oh, she could do so much better.’ There are many women out there who feel unhappy and discriminated against because they’re trying and trying to get to the top of a male-dominated field, but there are also women who are perfectly happy in their chosen line of work, but who are constantly told that they are not really worth anything. Likewise, there are men who are happy to put family before work – because in reality, the world doesn’t consist of one uniform group of men who want one thing and one uniform group of women who want another.

I don’t think my two positions are contradictory, I think they go hand in hand. Part of solving the problem is policy, and part of it is cultural mindset. I don’t agree with Chittal when she says that women just need to embrace a more aggressive, outspoken career strategy to get ahead. At the same time, I think the ambition gap is a useful tool for showing the problem isn’t simply a few employers wanting to hire men rather than women. It’s a lot deeper than that, and it’s tied up in our whole system for conceptualising work and value of said work. And that’s what needs to change as well as workplace policy.

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9 thoughts on “The Ambition Gap

  1. It’s an unfortunate truth that the most important professions are generally those least valued, at least in Australian society. As a man, I get tired of people looking down on me for my choice to make parenting my priority rather than my career.

  2. Teaching is a non-valued (not even ‘under’, but ‘non’) profession, but I don’t think it has to do with gender dominance; I think there are several factors at play. But it saddens and angers me that people feel free to express it so openly. People look down on my field of study, but when I point out that without highschool they wouldn’t, couldn’t study their current degree they often go silent.

    As a pre-service teacher I’m also in the position of being a male in a female dominated profession. This is where the gender part comes in to play, in my opinion. I think a lot of people tacitly imply that I could be doing something “better” – ie. business, engineering etc, as I’m a guy.

    1. Scoon, I also get angry when people bag out on teachers, be it high school or primary school. I had some really extraordinary teachers in high school, and I have a great deal of respect for the amount of work they do and the effort they put into their jobs! I was thinking of being a high school teacher for a while.

      Unfortunately, it seems like people really believe that saying that ‘those who can’t do, teach.’ It’s ridiculous. Being able to teach is a huge skill in itself, one that not everyone has. It’s also sad to see that the same arbitrary ideas about ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ still prevail so strongly.

  3. Great blog, Jo! If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me that ‘I could do better’ than being a teacher, children’s books author and/or mum … It’s frustrating because these are my dreams for my future and they’re constantly put down because ‘I could do better’ (I.e. professor, museum curator etc). Like you say, this is a much greater problem than we see at face value, I just hope that at this stage all women and men can simply follow their hearts rather than other people’s ideals.

    1. Thanks Kate! It’s one thing to reassure people that they are capable of having dreams, but it’s certainly another to put someone down because they aren’t dreaming ‘high enough’ for you. I hope I’ve never made anyone feel that way, though I suspect I may have in the past, in which case I’m sorry!

  4. Hmm, I think there’s a bit of threading the needle that occurs with this type of argument. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that a lot of things are devalued in society solely by association with being feminine (and it’s not just work, I would argue, but across the board). On the other hand, there are real advantages to having power and money (and knowledge) that any doctrine for gender equality has to acknowledge and deal with.

  5. Hey Jo, love the article. I think conditioning is often confused with innate “femaleness” or “maleness”. Me and my parents were talking about how they have seen in their careers that men will ask for really cheeky pay rises, will push to earn more, while often women won’t. But we all agreed that this is because women are taught from a very early age to be docile and not “expect too much” or not feel good enough. At the same time men are told they “should” be ambitious. I was very lucky to go to a girls’ school where we were always always always told we should expect as much from life and our career as men.

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