To be or not to be? The gendered nature of ambition

We were grateful to be joined by Sabrina Spangsdorf in March to share her interesting research around gendered ambition. An abstract outlining some of the results shown in the talk follows first:

Studies on gender differences in ambition show varied results, with recent qualitative studies suggesting this is due to lack of knowledge about how different groups define and conceptualise ambition. Indeed, ambition can be a vaguely defined concept, often framed in terms of specific end-goals, competition, or linear progression. We address these gaps by exploring how adolescents view ambition.  We combine a qualitative interview study (N = 30) with a cross-sectional correlation study (N = 684) to better understand how adolescents conceptualise ambition, and to explore how motivation, self-efficacy, and perceptions of success are related to ambition. Our qualitative analysis suggests that boys and girls share similar definitions of ambition and that psychological factors such as self-esteem, self-control, motivation, perception of success, goal-setting, and self-efficacy are closely related, but distinct. Confirmatory factor analysis confirmed that the factors are distinct from ambition and that there is a positive correlation between ambition and goal-setting, grit, self-esteem, and perceptions of objective success (but not subjective success). Unlike studies on adults, we find no correlation between ambition and motivation or self-efficacy. Our results suggest that the operationalisation of ambition should be derived from the participants, rather than from the researchers, to avoid possible gender differences.

Our members in the Women in Climate network felt the talk was very thought provoking, prompting us to think about the different ways that Ambition could be perceived. It was really interesting to hear about how this has historically been perceived in the literature, and how this has been affected by gender norms, with definitions of ambition being very stereotypically masculine, and biased towards male versions of success.

It was fascinating to consider how ambition and goals are often culturally determined by both gender and social class, with age and organisational context also being factors; BCG Survey (2017) found ambition often higher in women than men in early career, but declined due to company culture (and it was NOT related to them having children). Harman and Sealy (2017) also found organisational context influences women’s ambition level.

Then Sabrina outlined the different studies in her PhD research, which explore the definition of ambition and the influence of context and social status. It was really interesting to see the results for young people, who have not yet been exposed to the gender biases of male-dominated workplaces. Thank you to Sabrina for the fascinating talk.