The Ambition Myth: Debunking a Common Excuse for the Gender Wage Gap

Career and family choices aren't the only thing holding back women's earnings. Recent research shows that there is bias, too ... even if we're uncomfortable to call it out.

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The gender wage gap drew a spotlight in the presidential campaign, as both sides duked it out for women's votes. But while we accept the gap's persistence, we're still guessing at its origins. One explanation, from both the right and the left, is that women are less ambitious -- either they make explicit choices to put family before work or their shrink from the opportunity to demand a higher salary or better job. This explanation seeks to explain the fact that many women are stalled in middle management and make up a pitiful percentage of America's C-suite. (See: the debate over why a mere 14 percent of Goldman Sachs's new partners and 23 percent of its new managing directors were women this year.)

When researchers have studied the ambition gap, they've discovered something peculiar: It's not there. Women do ask for more. They just aren't rewarded for it.

The research organization Catalyst, for example, found that among MBA grads on a traditional career track, women are even more likely than men to seek out skill-building experiences and training opportunities and to make their achievements visible by asking for feedback and promotions. Women also reported similar rates of negotiating as men: 47 percent of women and 52 percent of men had asked for a higher salary during the hiring process, and 14 percent of women and 15 percent of men had asked for a higher position. No gap there.

A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reported similar findings. When it was not made explicit that prospective employees could negotiate salary, men were more likely than women to haggle anyway. But once it was made explicit, women drove an even harder bargain than men. Does that reflect an ambition gap or an equal hunger for higher pay?

Another way at the problem is to look at job satisfaction. If women are less ambitious, we'd expect them to be about equally satisfied with their careers as their male colleagues. But Catalyst found that men at all levels are more satisfied with their careers than women. Thirty-seven percent of men were very satisfied, compared to just 30 percent of women. The only place where men and women were equally dissatisfied was at the lowest rungs of a firm.


What does become clear when researchers look at this problem is that women aren't rewarded for their ambition. Catalyst has spent extensive time evaluating this issue. Its first report followed recent MBA graduates -- the "best and the brightest," in its own terms -- to see how men and women fared.

Women's first jobs out of school were at a lower level than men, and men had higher starting salaries, even when the number of years of experience, time since the MBA, industry, and geography were taken into account. Maybe men just start off more ambitious?

But they don't. The findings held true even among men and women who aspired to the CEO or senior executive level. It also held true for men and women who didn't have children. It's not the mommy track. It's something else.

What's that something else? Is it choice of major? Choice of occupation? Early-life family requirements? It seems not. A recent study from AAUW looked at men and women one year out of college and found a 7% gender earnings gap, even when school selectivity, grades, choice of major, choice of occupation, and hours-worked were taken into account.

Presented by

Bryce Covert is editor of the Roosevelt Institute's Next New Deal blog and a contributor at The Nation and ForbesWoman.

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