THE BLOG
05/08/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

What Ambition in Women Looks Like

The first time I heard Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, say that women lack ambition, I thought, "She's an executive, not a researcher. This idea will be disproved." Yet she continues to be given a platform to tell this story. People continue to listen. This is another low blow to high-achieving women.

I do applaud when Sandberg looks at societal and systemic problems that need to be addressed. Yet she also says the problem stems from girls being brought up to lay back and be communal. Yes, there is still gender stereotyping in the media and many girls are brought up with desires that might keep them out of the boardroom. But an increasing number of studies and books reflect a different story. There are many other reasons women leave before they are offered an executive position. Most are not due to a lack of ambition.

Why do women quit fighting for higher positions or quit their jobs altogether, moving on to something else?

1. Women are not motivated by the traditional "carrot and stick" approaches that business counts on. From my experience and research, many women are not motivated to achieve because they want money and titles. They are motivated by "motion and meaning." They want frequent, new and significant challenges and they want recognition for their contributions. They are restless and often disappointed. This may frustrate their ambition, but the drive remains. They just have to recreate their vision to get their needs met. Instead of climbing up the corporate ladder, they drive themselves out the door. They take their ambition elsewhere.

As a result, women bounce around jobs and companies more frequently than men. Eventually, many bounce off the corporate ladder all together. According to MBO Partners' Independent Workforce Index, some 8.5 million women are choosing to fly solo when it comes to work in the United States, making up 53 percent of all independent workers.

You can find the research that explores the reasons women "zig-zag" in their careers instead of staying the course in my book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.

2. Young women often don't realize the barriers to their success are still so strong. Shelby Knox, committed to reviving feminism as a way of helping women feel sane as well as strong, says women enter the workforce thinking they are equal and there are no barriers. Then they face the truth. Many have early successes, but most hit a wall along the way where they are given less challenges and recognition. Knox says that many young women blame themselves for this plateau. Either their confidence suffers, keeping them from pushing forward, or they give up the battle along the way. They don't lack ambition. They lack a sense of reality.

We need to encourage girls to achieve their dreams. And we need arm them with the confidence and skills to deal with the realities they will face. We can encourage while being pragmatic.

3. Women are told to act like men and are then chastised for this behavior. In her famous TED talk, Sandberg discusses the structural restraints in companies that could make it hard for women to stay on the leadership ladder. Ambitious women are often judged harshly. Jennifer Berdahl of the Rotman School of Management says women who achieve are often seen as less likable. This negative social reaction can deter other women from climbing the corporate ladder. Yet this doesn't mean women aren't ambitious.

Unfortunately, frustrated women often leave the system instead of trying to change it. "Often, women decide to leave jobs because they don't believe they'll be able to improve their situation," said Emily Hoffman, vice president of development and delivery at VitalSmarts in an article by Little Pink Book on Why Women Quit. "Bottled resentment and anger that women may feel towards colleagues or managers eventually manifests itself in simply quitting."

The sad truth is that if women keep leaving, nothing will change. Who else will stand up to the unfairness that is still keeping women back? Anger might not make us likable, but being political and polite will only maintain the status quo.

It's easier to change a system from the inside than it is just talking about it from the outside. Although I don't agree that you need to play golf, Julie Steinberg wrote a good article for the Wall Street Journal on what women need to do to get ahead. Most of all, we need to stand together. A crowd of angry voices is harder to ignore than one courageous "complainer."

4. Women shy away from important career-defining conversations, such as negotiating how and where they do their work, asking for promotions and letting people know about their accomplishments. In her new book, Pushback, Selena Rezvani teaches women how to speak up for what they want, whether for a promotion, a new challenge or a raise. If people keep misunderstanding women's motivations and desires, they will continue to be labeled negatively. Women have to know how to speak and ask so they will be heard.

Women ARE ambitious, whether they are nurturing and collaborative or independent, assertive, and decisive. They may need to speak up and educate people better on what they need.

Everyone else needs to practice listening.