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Gender debate flares up over women’s supposed ‘lack of ambition’

by Sally Miles on May 23, 2014

Reports by several media outlets including The Australian and The Daily Mail have cited a recent survey of 1000 professionals, stating that ‘Businessmen say women lack ambition’.

Before you get all fired up (as we at Leaders in Heels initially did!), take a closer look at the reporting. It’s actually quite interesting.

The Australian states “Most Australian businessmen blame women for failing to reach to the top, citing family commitments and lack of ambition.” The negative language including ‘blame’ and ‘failing’ along with the angle taken makes this quite an inflammatory interpretation of the survey results. For this particular question, ‘What do you think is the biggest barrier to career progression/leadership roles for women in Australia?’ the responses were:

  • Work/life juggle (Men: 66%, Women: 83%)
  • Lack of ambition (Men 19%, Women: 13%)
  • Lack of qualifications/experience (Men: 16%, Women: 16%)
  • No barriers (Men: 16%, Women: 9%)
  • Men perform in leadership roles better (Men: 9%, Women: 6%)

No matter how people might have answered, there’s a headline in there somewhere. Perhaps ‘Close to one in ten men believe they are better leaders than women’, or ‘As few as 9% of men believe they are better leaders than women’, or how about ‘Eighty-three percent of women believe trying to balance their lives stops their career progression’, or ‘Both men and women equally believe that women don’t have enough experience to be leaders’. Really, it’s a bit of a minefield.

What’s more interesting is the conversation the media are having over this. The ‘lack of ambition’ finding being the most controversial. But perhaps we should question how ambition is defined here. Is it considered purely as the desire to obtain a CEO role? And is this ‘lack of ambition’ suggesting women are lazy or set low goals for themselves?

Elizabeth Broderick, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, weighed in on the discussion yesterday insisting that there was no evidence women lacked ambition.

We spoke to Megan Dalla-Camina from Positive Leaders who published the results of the survey. She agrees with Elizabeth Broderick that there is no evidence this is true, rather this is what some men (and women) perceive to be barriers. She stated that some of the findings in the survey were expected and others were not.

“The most surprising finding in the survey was the fact that 60% of men thought women had the same career opportunities as men, whereas only 35% of women agreed. It’s the largest discrepancy in the survey.”

“The most surprising finding in the survey was the fact that 60% of men thought women had the same career opportunities as men, whereas only 35% of women agreed. It’s the largest discrepancy in the survey.”

While some media outlets are interpreting this to mean that men believe women only have themselves to blame for poor representation in the boardroom, Ms Dalla-Camina believes this can also be looked at in a positive way – that 60% of men have come so far in their perception of workplace equality that they see absolutely no barriers for women to move up the ranks.

So if it’s all open to interpretation, why are we having such negative conversations about it?

Is it the case that conversations in the media are a reflection of society? We should really be looking at why we accept inflammatory headlines which only serve to drive a wedge between men’s and women’s views in the gender debate.

Men and women should be coming together to discuss the barriers, whether real or perceived, and work towards solutions.

Women and men should be coming together to discuss the barriers, whether real or perceived, and work towards solutions. 

There is growing evidence to support the fact that gender-balanced companies perform better in both productivity and profit. Working towards equal leadership will benefit workplaces across the nation.

So let’s start having better conversations: in the media, in the office, with our peers and at home about the steps we need to take to achieve leadership equality. What can we be doing to ensure we successfully manage our career progression as well as our home-life? (Which, by the way, is something men need to ask of themselves as well.)

Women are a powerful, growing force in the workplace. We are highly capable and determined. We actively craft our lives to create happiness and reach our dreams (see the Leaders in Heels manifesto). We are intelligent enough to evaluate claims and interpret headlines for ourselves.

Yes, we have challenges to overcome in the workplace, but we need to engage with men in a positive, solution-focused way to achieve any sort of change. Only then can we begin to pave the way for our daughters and granddaughters to live in a world where gender bias is a thing of the past.

Now that’s something we should all be fired up about.

– Sally Miles

Thanks to Megan Dalla-Camina from Positive Leaders for your time and contributing to the conversation. You can access the full survey results and recent whitepaper ‘Unleashing the butterfly effect for women and leadership’ here

Sally Miles is Women’s Editor for Leaders in Heels. She is a writer, editor and publisher from Sydney, NSW.

Some of the current gender debate is around whether workplaces should be embracing feminine qualities rather than expecting women leaders to be ‘more like men’. Do feminine qualities mean a woman can’t do a man’s job or does it just mean they do it differently? Should men embrace feminine qualities too?

What do you think? We welcome your comments below.
photo credit: e3Learning via photopin cc

Sally Miles
Sally is Head Publisher at IntoScience, part of award-winning global education company 3P Learning. After hours, she avoids housework by playing with her two children, writing or going for a run. Always a strong advocate for women's rights and gender equality, Sally is thrilled to have the privilege of being Women’s Editor at Leaders in Heels.
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