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.

Even among extraordinarily ambitious and successful workers of both genders, Catalyst research found a gap. They followed full-time workers who didn't take breaks for education or family reasons or self employment. The mommy-trackers were left out. But the gap didn't go away: Twice as many of the most proactive men advanced to a senior executive level as similar women. The report concludes, "[W]hen women used the same career advancement strategies as men, they advanced less."


Catalyst's most recent report may shed some light on part of what holds women back: They aren't given the highly visible assignments that are critical to helping employees advance.

Following the same group of high potentials, the study found that women are perhaps even more anxious to take on these big-time assignments, having more project-based experience than men. Men and women were also equally quick to jump on these opportunities. They both led projects about 18 months after getting their MBAs. Yet men were given larger and more critical projects, with twice the budget of women's projects, three times as many employees, more visibility to the boss, and a higher level of risk. Women were also given less international experience, even though men are just as likely to turn down these assignments.

There are institutional blocks to women asking for higher pay. A human resources company recently analyzed data from 20,000 companies and found that more women than men received raises -- 7.4 percent to 6.2 percent -- cutting against the idea that women aren't sitting down to negotiate salary. But men got the bigger raises, snagging 60% of the extra money.

Who do we blame for the wage gap, then? Maybe, the managers. One study told 184 managers that they would have a limited pot of money to hand out in raises to employees with identical skills and responsibilities. The managers that were told they'd have to negotiate gave men two-and-a-half times the amount in raises that they gave to women before anyone sat down. This meant that the men didn't even need to negotiate for higher pay, while women were already at a disadvantage when they tried to bargain up, because the rest of the money was assigned to their male peers.


The fact that there is probably institutional bias against women in the workplace doesn't rule out the fact that some competent women choose to reduce their income based on personal decisions, especially family-care. Many still choose to change their career trajectories, or to work less, in order to raise children, or take care of aging family members. A quarter of all working women are part-time, far more than men. That's changing as the number of men who are stay-at-home dads has more than doubled over the last decade, but we can't ignore the way that society shapes these women's "choices" by telling them that they are default caretakers without providing affordable, quality-care options or paid-time-off for having a new child or one that gets sick.

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.