Sheryl Sandberg on the ‘ambition gap’

At the World Economic Conference in Davos, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg spoke on a panel about women in leadership. Did she speak about business strategies, quotas versus merit, politics, reproductive rights? No. Sandberg spoke about female ambition and how girls’ aspirations are blunted at an early age. She spoke about the ‘ambition gap.” She said that “we don’t raise our daughters to be as ambitious as our sons…Little girls are called ‘bossy’… Go find someone and watch them call a little boy bossy.” Sandberg talks about T shirts sold to kids that either read: “I’m smart like my dad” or “I’m pretty like my mom.”

The focus of Sandberg’s speech was the same topics I blog about every day on Reel Girl. Topics that many readers of my blog on SFGate repeatedly call trivial.

Sandberg says that a major obstacle to women’s achievement is that success and likeability are positively correlated for men but negatively correlated for women. I honestly believe this duality/ stereotype is fueled in the fantasy world where kids so rarely see heroines who are powerful and beautiful; smart and kind.

Sandberg says, “From early childhood through marriage we reward men for being leaders, taking risks, being competitive. We teach women as young as four to lay back, be communal. We need our boys to be as ambitious to contribute in the home and we need our girls to be as ambitious to achieve in the workforce.”

Watch Sandberg’s speech here. A great analysis of this speech is also Samatha Ettus’s piece in Forbes.

4 thoughts on “Sheryl Sandberg on the ‘ambition gap’

  1. Pingback: ambition gap | Madame Pickwick Art Blog

  2. I think the reason for this is quite simple (and sad). For men, it goes like this:

    1. Be ambitious, work hard, take risks
    2. Succeed
    3. Get sex appeal

    For women, there is a false dichotomy that they have to pick one of the following series of steps:

    1. Be ambitious, work hard, take risks
    2. Succeed
    3. Lose sex appeal
    4. Die alone but successful


    1. Be sexy and pretty
    2. Get sex appeal
    3. Get married and have babies

    We are taught that we can’t have both. If men were faced with such a dilemma, I’m not so sure they would pick the first plan. They just don’t have to make such a hard choice. Their path to success is linear, whether its professional success, or personal success. They focus their efforts on succeeding, and they know this will get them everything — money, recognition, sex appeal. Sex appeal is a huge motivator, for both sexes.

    I have no idea how this can be solved, but I think it’s the main issue.

    Personally, I grew up being very ambitious, more than pretty much every man I know, and that helped me a lot to become internationally known in my field (front-end web development). One reason was having a mother that was a great role model. She is a civil engineer, went to MIT for a PhD at a time where most Greek women didn’t even get an undergrad degree and later became a successful entrepreneur in her area in Greece. And all that from her own efforts and ambition, her family hardly had enough money to pay for her ticket to the US. Another reason was that both my parents (mostly my mom) kept telling me I can do anything, if I try hard enough. I was never told that there’s something I’m not good enough to achieve, and that shaped how I approach things in both life and in my work. But another reason, one I cite a lot less, was also that I naturally assumed that boys are like girls, and since I was attracted by intelligent men with similar interests, they would be attracted by intelligent women with similar interests. So, one reason I kept trying and trying was the same reason men do it. It was quite late in my life that I realized that even intelligent men are often attracted by the bimbo stereotype: pretty and nice, but dumb and with entirely different interests, and my character was already shaped. If I had realized this earlier, I don’t know if I would’ve turned out the same so I’m glad I didn’t.

    Wow, that turned out to be a quite long comment, sorry. I just love babbling about this kind of thing.

    • Hi Lea,

      I completely agree with you and it starts very young. In high school, the athletic or funny guys were ‘hot;’ ‘pretty’ girls could be athletic or funny or smart but it was in spite of their attractiveness, unlike wit the guys, it didn’t make them attractive. Increasing you sex appeal through achievement is a major motivation to be successful. Women have the opposite motivation. Men get a straight path, women get a labyrith.

      Congrats on not getting sicked i to the bullshit.


  3. This is so true of society in general, although not of my Mum.

    I can remember when I was 9 or 10 saying to my Mum “I want to marry a pilot” and my Mum saying to me “why not *be* a pilot”.

    Well done Mum. Let’s have more like you!

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