What do you think of ambitious women?

What do you think of ambitious women?

Welcome to this week’s LEAP:IN newsletter. Each week, we unpack leader’s powerful quotes and decipher the tech landscape. With exclusive content from some of the world’s leading experts in AI, robotics, space, edutech, climate tech and more, read on to discover this week’s insights and subscribe to receive weekly updates direct to your inbox.


This week we’re quoting…

Karen Brady CBE (Entrepreneur, Member of the House of Lords, Vice Chairman of West Ham United FC., TV Personality)

What Brady said:

“I get very annoyed when people are afraid to say they’re ambitious, because ambition is not a dirty word. It’s that spark, it’s that fire inside of you that drives you on.” 

Is ambition a particularly dirty word for women?

A 2019 study (published in the journal American Psychologist) found that although women are finally being recognised as competent at work, they’re still viewed as less ambitious than men. 

And women who are seen as ambitious have not, traditionally, been applauded for it. 

A Washington Post article, back in 2016, asked why male ambitiousness is celebrated, while female ambitiousness is criticised. The former US president Barack Obama brought this up during a 2016 rally in Ohio, as he tried to encourage male voters to consider Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump: 

“When a guy is ambitious and out in the public arena and working hard, well, that’s okay. But when a woman does it, suddenly you’re all like, ‘Well, why is she doing that?’”

But the issue isn’t restricted to the United States. 

Women are meant to be likeable

Several studies have found that women in the workplace are expected to be warm and likeable – and they’re rewarded for coming across this way, and penalised for appearing hungry for power or money. 

Men, though, aren’t seen in a negative light if they try to climb the career ladder or build successful businesses. They’re expected to aim high. 

Writing for Forbes in 2017, entrepreneur Liz Elting said:

“An ambitious woman in the workplace is viewed as difficult, abrasive, and accused of not being a team player—in short, a supervillain-level threat to the status quo and to her male colleagues.”

In which case it’s easy to understand why many women prefer not to be perceived as ambitious.

Haven’t things changed since 2017, though?

In spite of evident gender imbalances in positions of power (not just in tech, but across most industries), positive signs of change are emerging. 

The 2022 Women at Work report by CNBC and Momentive surveyed more than 4,800 women. It found that nearly 50% consider themselves ‘very ambitious’, and feel optimistic about their future career growth. 

But according to an opinion piece Bloomberg UK in 2021, women are still punished for being ambitious. The writer cited cases including a woman who had a job offer rescinded after following advice to ‘always negotiate’.

And one 2018 study found that recruiters (even when they’re just starting out in their own careers) avoid working with high-achieving women. 

Another revealing study from 2020 found that when women are given leadership positions without having pursued that power directly, they were less likely to be found unlikeable by others. However, when a woman actively pursues a leadership position, she’s more likely to be penalised (socially, professionally, and financially). 

So it’s the ambition; the pursuit of something; that’s what creates a negative impression. 

We say do it anyway

Social, systemic change is slow. There is work to be done, and it doesn’t all come down to individual women. The onus can’t only be on female entrepreneurs to change the way they’re perceived – this is an everyone issue. 

But in the meantime, while perceptions of ambitious women are still patchy, we’ll leave you with this tweet from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez:

“They’ll tell you you’re too loud, that you need to wait your turn and ask the right people for permission. Do it anyway.”


Dan Wright (CEO at DataRobot)

What Wright said:

“We believe intelligence is the ability to acquire knowledge from experience, for future decision-making.” 

We like this definition of intelligence

It makes sense. But intelligence has been, and still is, defined in a plethora of different ways. So we thought we’d look at some of those current and past conceptions of what it means to be clever. 

What’s your favourite?

Dictionary definitions in 2022

“capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.” (dictionary.com)

A little further back in history…

George Romanes, a colleague of Darwin, put together a collection of stories and anecdotes (the data of his time) about animal behaviour. From this he built a theory of the evolution of intelligence – and he defined intelligence as the ability to solve problems, and to adapt

In 1923, American experimental psychologist Edwin Boring said “Intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests.” 

And more speculatively, in 1929 Ada Yerkes and Robert Yerkes wrote, “…the term intelligence designates a complexly interrelated assemblage of functions, no one of which is completely or accurately known in man…”

AI researchers define it, too

Like Wright, other AI researchers and developers have come up with their own ideas about what intelligence is (and is not). And we’ll be honest – we like the AI definitions best.

They include…

  • “Any system…that generates adaptive behaviour to meet goals in a range of environments can be said to be intelligent.” (D. Fogel, 1995)
  • “Intelligence is the ability to use optimally limited resources – including time – to achieve goals.” (Ray Kurzweil, 2000)
  • “Intelligence means getting better over time.” (Roger Schank, 1991)

We’re sticking with English

For the purposes of this newsletter, we’re only looking at English-language definitions of intelligence. But as an international, multi-lingual team we’re interested in the different ways intelligence is conceived (and perceived) around the world. 

Does your country or language see it differently?