Why Are Girls Less Ambitious Than Boys?

Just 36 percent of American women aspire to top jobs, according to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Is this because of an "ambition gap" that begins in childhood?

Is Cinderella teaching young girls to be passive and unambitious? Or is it society's fault for sexualizing women and expecting them to always "play nice"?

The question of women's ambition hit the headlines recently after a speech by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Sandberg said that scarcity of women in top business positions in America is due to a gender “ambition gap." Watch the video of the forum and Sandberg's speech here.  

The claim was backed up by a study from the Center for Work-Life Policy, which found that American women are less ambitious than those in Brazil, China and India. According to a 2011 study by UC Davis, it will take 100 years for women in California to catch up with men as leaders of the state's top companies.

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was a panelist on KQED Friday morning for a forum on the issue of the "ambition gap."

For Orenstein, the lack of women leaders in America is not so much due to an ambition gap, but an unwillingness for girls — and the women they become — to "put themselves out there.”

From childhood, girls are taught that appearances and pleasing others are top priorities, says the author. Orenstein says she became concerned when her daughter developed a “princess obsession.” The fascination with "pink and pretty" teaches girls that “they can be strong and smart — but they better be hot,” said Orenstein. "Physical perfection has been recast as a source — the source — of physical empowerment," writes Orenstein in Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

According to Simone Marean, executive director of the Girls Leadership Institute, the "princess dynamic" flattens creativity and personality, when parents and society should instead be encouraging depth and breadth. 

Paula Davis-Laack, a psychologist specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women, suggests a number of ways to close the ambition gap:

  • Reward and praise girls for being strong, smart, competitive, and ambitious; not pretty and princess-like.
  • Identify strong women leaders and role models and discuss them with your kids. Talk about what strengths each women possesses and how those strengths influenced her career path.
  • Encourage boys to help around the house, cook meals, and do laundry.
  • At work, make an effort to really understand the flex-time policies offered at your company. Talk to your boss and human resources personnel about ways these policies could be improved and/or enforced. Ask them to give you exact statistics about who is using these policies.
  • If you are a working mom, stop apologizing for your status as a working mom. Recent research suggests that working moms are happier than their non-working peers. Instead of justifying your status, think about the wonderful example you are setting for your kids.


  • Do you think girls are less ambitious than boys? Why?
  • Are you a parent? Do you make an active effort to instill ambition in your child or teenager? How?
  • Do you know of any local programs that encourage and inspire teenage girls?

Share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the comments below.

Samson Gich March 15, 2012 at 09:02 AM
I am unable to get past the premise. I didn't realize that ambition begins and ends with aspiring to get "a top job", whatever that means. If only 36% of women meet this definition, what percentage of men do?
James March 15, 2012 at 09:12 AM
Not even a Giggle? Tough Crowd!
Carly March 15, 2012 at 02:42 PM
There are more women getting college degrees than men. Look around, this push to make women feel that they are not sucessful unless they dump their family and focus on the work world is ruining society.
Nadja Adolf March 15, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Women getting more college degrees than men is a meaningless statistic. The reality is that income potential of a major can be measured by whether or not it requires at least minimal calculus: business, engineering, science, technology. The reality is that even now most women study the liberal arts or traditionally feminine fields. I don't think women should feel pressured to become CEOS, CFOs, or politicians - but I think each and every one of us needs to be able to make enough money to support our children if required. We have developed a culture where many women believe that men are genitalia attached to a wallet, and that Uncle Sam is just one more of the same - we have a huge problem with women who have children out of wedlock and consider it more "noble" to obtain welfare than report the father so child support can be collected. The greatest indicator of lifelong poverty is being a teen age unwed mother; and being the child of a teenage unwed mother is another strong risk factor for lifelong poverty.
TW March 15, 2012 at 08:32 PM
I have raised two girls here in Newark, who both graduated from college, although using very different pathways to achieve their goals. I have also had the privilege to influence and guide dozens of girls over the past thirty years as a Girl Scout leader. Some girls push to achieve high goals, some do not. It is as much about their personality as anything else. Not every boy is boisterous, impulsive and aggresive, and not every girl wants to be Cinderella. I know this because I have worked in an elementary school for over 15 years. It has not been my experience as a staff member, nor my girls' experience as students in Newark schools, that students have had rules changed, or been subjected to being eraser cleaners, or punished by being seated with the opposite sex. My girls were exceptional in sports, academics, and the arts, as well as strong personalities, and were never held back by any teachers because of these traits. It is up to the individual to decide what they desire, then choose the route they feel will help them achieve their goals. It is up to us as parents and educators to support their decision, and not judge them if they choose a path other than CEO of some major corporation.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »