The Ambition Penalty: How Women Are Penalized for Being Ambitious

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  • Society views men through one lens and women through another.
  • Women risk being punished for advocating for themselves.

Bias can prevent a woman from meeting her full potential.

The news is full of stories about the gender pay gap. On average, American women earn $0.82 for every $1 made by men. For women of color, the disparity is even more significant. We've heard less about how often women are blamed for the gap, how they're painted as employees who will surely choose family over the job, as though that's a bad thing.

Most women know what to expect at work and understand receiving the recognition they deserve can be an uphill battle. Ask any woman who has spent years in the workforce, devoting the best of herself to her career, and you're likely to hear at least one story about a time she was told (directly or indirectly) that she wasn't dedicated enough. It may have been something simple, like getting passed over for a promotion she'd earned or receiving a smaller raise than a male counterpart.

And heaven help the woman who advocates for herself on the job.

The ‘ambition penalty’

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez, the Money Confidential podcast host, has coined the term "ambition penalty." The ambition penalty refers to what happens to women who ask for more. Whether that means asking for more money, more responsibility on the job, or more say in how a department is run, women take a professional and financial risk when they advocate for themselves.

According to Rodriguez, when a woman negotiates, she's more likely to be labeled aggressive and demanding. Further, she's less likely than a male counterpart to receive the promotions and raises she wants.

To anyone who's never seen or experienced the phenomenon firsthand, it's easy to be dismissive. After all, plenty of men (and women) reject the notion of an ambition penalty as sour grapes. But take a look at the evidence:

The all-important callback

When Natasha Quadline, an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA, conducted a study investigating the link between achievements, major, and gender, she found that high-achieving men were around twice as likely to get called back for a second interview with a company than an equally high-achieving woman. Men were three times as likely to be called back in the math field.

Quadline also found that -- consciously or not -- companies penalize high-achieving women for simply being high-achieving. Her study found that employers look for female employees who are "likable," while they hire male employees based on their perceived capabilities.

These false perceptions can be all that's standing between a woman and her ability to save, invest, and one day retire.

Amazon's biased artificial intelligence

Back in 2014, programmers at Amazon began to build computer programs to help with the hiring process. They believed once artificial intelligence was adequately programmed, it would recognize the resumes that most closely matched the positions the company was hoping to fill.

A problem arose the following year when Amazon realized the computer was spitting out highly-skewed results with women routinely overlooked for technical jobs, like software developer. That's because Amazon "trained" their computer model to vet applicants by using resumes submitted to the company over the previous 10 years.

The thing is, the tech field is chock full of men. After recognizing how many men had excellent technical training, the computer program learned to see being a man as an attribute. So, when it ran into a resume that clearly belonged to a woman, that applicant was considered less desirable and was far less likely to be invited in for an interview.

Likable vs. a lousy team player

Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Meta Platforms and founder of LeanIn.Org. In her book, Lean In, Sandberg cited a fascinating experiment at Columbia Business School. As part of the experiment, two professors -- Frank Flynn and Cameron Anderson -- chose the resume of a real female entrepreneur who was noted for her outgoing personality and successful career.

When they printed out copies of the woman's resume, they left her name (Heidi) on half of them. On the other half, they changed Heidi's name to Howard. Half the class was given the "Heidi" resume to read, and the other half received the same resume with the name "Howard" on it.

After reading the resumes, students were asked to rate the candidates. They rated Heidi and Howard as equally competent. However, while Howard was also perceived as likable and a good colleague, Heidi was perceived as aggressive, selfish, and a bad team player.

Since the resume was precisely the same, responses could only be due to gender bias.

Bottom line

Few question a man who has risen to a corporate leadership position, but there are plenty of questions regarding what a woman had to do to snag the same job. When a man barks orders, it is considered commanding and decisive. When a woman does the same, it's deemed aggressive and emotional.

The internet is loaded with articles about how a woman should ask for a raise or promotion (and yes, the rules are different for women). The fact women must alter who they are to avoid being negatively labeled is at the heart of the problem. Should the victim of a biased system play along to make others more comfortable?

Perhaps the best we can do is to recognize biases in ourselves. Do we have a different set of expectations for men and women? Do we personally give men a pass on something we'd call a woman out for? We can't hope society will change if we're unwilling to change ourselves.

Until women are no longer penalized for ambition, there's little chance of having the money in the bank we deserve.

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