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Striving for the top: How ambition is perceived in men and women

Hall, Lauren (2014) Striving for the top: How ambition is perceived in men and women. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The gender leadership gap has received much attention in the literature in recent years, where around the world, men are much more likely than women to hold powerful positions. Although the explanations given for this phenomenon can often revolve around biological sex-differences, or the choices that women make, the focus of this thesis is on social explanations, and the social roles expected of women that make it more difficult to enact the expected qualities of a leader without incurring negative social judgments. While past research has focused on how leadership qualities influence social judgments of women and men, this thesis addresses the step before leadership, looking specifically at how men and women are perceived when they desire leadership positions: in other words, how men and women are perceived when they are ambitious. Ambition is a trait that is often seen negatively, in both men and women, as something that is selfish, ruthless and individualistic. However, negative traits that are part of the masculine stereotype are more accepted in men than they are in women. In this thesis, I examine how ambition is perceived in women and men, and whether negative perceptions of ambitious people can be ameliorated using particular strategies. Thus the questions that this thesis attempts to answer are: can negative perceptions of ambition be ameliorated by the simultaneous presentation of other characteristics, and do these ameliorating factors operate differently for perception of ambitious men and women. I use a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to address these questions.

A series of studies was conducted to examine when ambition is perceived negatively, and how these negative perceptions can be ameliorated. In study 1, experimental manipulations indicated that although ambition was perceived more negatively than contentment with one’s position, it was viewed as more likely to lead to positive outcomes in the future. In study 2, a discursive analysis of newspaper constructions of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s elevation to leadership suggests that perceptions of ambition may be more complicated. This study shows that ambition can have multiple expressions, and multiple meanings, and can be perceived in a variety of different ways. Gillard’s ambition was presented as coming at a cost to her femininity, but was ameliorated when presented in conjunction with communal behaviours or collective goals. In order to untangle the multiple ways that ambition can be expressed and understood, three experimental studies were designed to formally test the combinations of communality and ambition, and collective goals and ambition, and whether these combinations would be perceived differently in men and women. Findings suggest that ambition is viewed positively when combined with communal traits and behaviours, while the strategy of collective goals also reduces some of the negative perceptions of ambition. Studies 3, 4 and 5 provided no evidence that perceptions of ambition in combination with other traits was moderated by the gender of the ambitious target. Although the findings across the five studies do not provide a clear picture of how gender affects perceptions of ambition, the consistent finding of ambition as perceived as negative, but able to be ameliorated, has far reaching implications. As past research suggests that women are often more penalised than men for perceptions of a lack of warmth, it may be that communal strategies that bolster perceptions of warmth (in addition to the competence that is more readily attributed to ambitious women) are most important for ambitious women, in order to further reduce the gender gap in leadership.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Psychology
Supervisor(s): Donaghue, Ngaire
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