Why Women Are Losing Career Ambition
Work + Life Balance

Why Women Are Losing Career Ambition


A few weeks ago, Forbes asked an alarming question about the state of women in the workplace: “Why Are Women Losing Their Ambition in Their Careers?” Centered on a new documentary, Pioneers in Skirts, the article asserts that, despite their best efforts to succeed in male-dominated industries (e.g., film), women are finding it difficult to make, and maintain, inroads.

The documentary’s director, Ashley Maria, attributes this to a phenomenon she calls “chipping away.” When women constantly experience “off-handed comments and systemic bias,” oftentimes in subtle ways that many don’t notice, they inevitably get discouraged, eventually losing their “pioneering attitude.” {Click to Tweet}

Pioneers in Skirts isn’t all pessimism, though. In fact, through the countless interviews that are at the root of the film, Maria uncovers what she believes are some viable solutions. One idea she puts forward is that women who play team sports or join in group activities gain the confidence and collaboration needed to succeed in other competitive environments. But that's far from a cure-all. 


The Forbes article defines systemic bias as the way in which American workplace culture supports particular outcomes that favor men. In other words, even if individuals (or organizations) try to ensure an even playing field, the system is inherently corrupt. It’s built to pose obstacles for women—whether it’s a structural issue like unfavorable maternity leave policies or common “compliments” like: “Wow, you have kids and a career! I can't imagine how you handle everything.” Even if these comments are well-intentioned, they still contribute to creating a sometimes hostile environment that alienates women and their personal achievements

And that’s exactly the challenge the documentary articulates so insightfully: because systemic bias is the cumulative result of countless small actions that might seem harmless, it’s easy to maintain—and hard to dismantle.

The moment you start to question the fundamentals of your professional acumen, your confidence starts slipping.


One obvious way that bias affects professional women is by literally making it difficult for them to achieve their goals, whether that’s a raise or a work schedule flexible enough to accommodate caregiving for children, parents, or other loved ones. But then there are emotional effects. In fact, when women face a constant uphill battle to gain equal treatment in the workplace, self-doubt is inevitably introduced, causing women to question their everyday actions and ideas.

It has been noted in numerous psychological studies that, "No matter the context, women are more likely to self-reflect, ruminate, and search for causes of events within themselves," instead of externalizing and directing negative behavior towards the outside world (as most men do). As Maria says in the article, “I had to know, was it just us, just me? What was I doing to make it look like I don’t know what I am doing? And then I had this life-changing thought: what if this is normal?”

The moment you start to question the fundamentals of your professional acumen, your confidence starts slipping. And once your confidence slips, it can be hard to take proactive, counterbalancing action, which reinforces low professional self-esteem. That’s the slippery slope that women face everyday.


There is definitely merit to Maria’s claim that team sports can empower women, giving them the confidence and skills to manage various obstacles. But truly battling issues that exist at an institutional level will take a lot more than just structured group activities.

1. We have to be aware that these biases still permeate all aspects of the professional world. One of the most powerful lessons of Pioneers in Skirts is simply admitting these issues exist today, in 2015, whether we want to believe it or not. The first step is to build an empowered audience that is willing to listen, take action, and hold peers, bosses, and organizations accountable for anti-equality practices. As a Fast Company article on gender bias puts it, “When we are aware of our biases and watch out for them, they are less likely to blindly dictate our decisions.”

2. Without accepting responsibility for gender inequality, women have to be willing to take specific actions in the workplace that “chip away” at the bias, not our own confidence. This means everything from negotiating the salary you deserve to refusing to let a coworker take credit for your idea. While it’s easy to get discouraged, particularly in the beginning of your career, don’t accept setbacks as a sign of your own failure—they are merely lessons that should be referred to repeatedly. Remember that it is the system that is broken, and our collective actions can turn the tide.

3. Fighting bias also entails supporting other women around us, both informally and as professional mentors and peers. Ultimately, if we fail each other, we lose a deep, meaningful network of others who share the same challenges, and counteract the hard work we strive for in changing the current system. {Click to Tweet}

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What are your reactions to the assessment that women face systemic challenges to professional success? What are some of the ways we can combat this together?