Lately I’ve been researching the issue of women’s loss of ambition and power in corporate environments. As a result, I have a deeper understanding of why it’s important for women to reflect on their own experiences and how to restore ambition and power when they get to the point of ambivalence or discouragement.

Ambition is simply a desire and determination to achieve success.  Ambition is fueled by one’s own personal power to support their goals and desires.  When you lose power, you lose ambition.

My interest in this topic peaked when I read Bonnie Marcus’ post on Forbes, “Do Women Really Want Power” which calls out women’s ambivalence about other powerful women and their own conflicted relationship to power.

Recent research from Bain and Company demonstrates that men and women have the same level of ambition and confidence when they enter the workforce. Yet after just two years, women’s ambition to reach top leadership goals drops 60% and their confidence drops 50%. Men’s aspirations and confidence remain the same.

The study draws the conclusion that corporate culture fails to nurture women’s ambition. Companies create barriers for women to reach leadership positions with antiquated workplace practices, gender bias, and lack of encouragement and support. The result is that women are now viewing their own pursuit of ambition as more stressful than it’s worth. Without role models and support, they don’t believe in the reality of their goals. They question whether it’s worth the effort. They are adjusting their goals in response.

When women adjust their goals it often means also lowering their expectations of themselves.  They often delay the pursuit of higher levels of advancement or opt-out completely.  I’ve also seen many women hold themselves back with the belief that they need to work harder and prove themselves more before pursuing a promotion.

The good news is that the issue of implicit bias is getting a lot of media attention. Some companies have begun to address cultural issues by investing in inclusivity training, mentoring programs and tracking diversity numbers with the goal of retaining women and increasing the number of women in leadership positions.  These initiatives will go a long way in bringing awareness and in changing corporate cultures.

Working in an unsupportive environment can definitely stop women from advancing and being empowered, but the problem is deeper than that.  As I reflected on my own experience over a 25-year career in technology, I realized that there is more to it than an oppressive male dominated environment and an unconscious bias in corporate cultures that hold us back.  Disempowerment happens in subtle ways, slowly eroding a woman’s confidence and ambition. What happens over time is that we internalize negative messages we receive about not being qualified or competent enough or being too assertive/not assertive enough.

Internalization is the unconscious mental process where characteristics, beliefs, feelings and attitudes of other people are assimilated into your own self identity. It is the process of taking in a message or projection and believing it to be true about yourself, even if it doesn’t make sense.  Internalization is a common coping mechanism.  By shifting the blame to oneself, it is possible to avoid uncomfortable, and possibly unproductive, confrontations with colleagues.

A few years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of male leadership peers. I made a suggestion for improving the product development process (which, by the way, was my area expertise).  No one acknowledged the idea or asked questions and the conversation moved on. A few minutes later, a male colleague (a senior engineer) made the same suggestion, a conversation ensued and the idea was enthusiastically embraced.

My thoughts? “I must not have articulated it clearly enough, I need to prepare more in the future”, and “my colleague is smarter than me and everyone knows it”.

Fortunately, I caught myself before I fed into a self-defeating narrative.  And then I felt angry, discouraged and disengaged.  In the past I had experienced feeling invisible and having my ideas ignored, only later to be recycled by a man and embraced, but I had some level of denial about it because I thought I sounded paranoid.  It was easier for me to keep improving and trying harder than to believe that I was in a culture that did not value my contributions.

After discussing this with other women I see that even if a person of influence or high level of power encourages a woman to be empowered, it isn’t enough once she has internalized a negative bias.  She has adapted to the culture by using disempowering language, silencing her opinions, adjusting her goals and conforming in order to feel comfortable and sane.  Many women will continue to use their energy to try to prove their competency and capabilities only to become burned out and feel even more self-doubt.

Most women who have internalized oppression are unaware of it, and it becomes their own internal glass ceiling.

Why is this important?

Personal power is the energy behind all your actions.  It’s the way of putting your ideas, visions and inspirations out in the world.  When you’ve internalized negative beliefs and disempower yourself, you are shutting down the flow of energy to do meaningful work, to take action on your own behalf, and to trust your decision making process because you begin to live in a state of constant self-doubt and frustration.

Over time, the result is a self-imposed limitation and loss of connection to why you are doing what you’re doing.  It is not uncommon to experience a certain amount of “deadness”, a loss of confidence in your abilities, a reluctance to try new things, and even a loss of health and vitality.

You may even become angry, cynical, and resentful of powerful women who do not hold themselves back from achieving their goals.  Ambition starts to look like greed and self-centeredness from this perspective.

Here’s the thing: when we hold back, stop taking risks, and play small then others see this and also lose confidence in us.  When self-doubt becomes a part of our identity, we lose power and stop standing up for ourselves.  The fact that you’ve been criticized or held back unfairly isn’t obvious to male colleagues. They may interpret  your lack of confidence as an indication of incompetence or just lack of drive.  In either case, they may look elsewhere for someone to play on their team.

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”  Alice Walker

The costs of self-doubt are huge: think of all the opportunities that have been lost, ideas not shared, important questions not raised, and the ways you’ve held back from experiencing life on a bigger scale.

What’s even more disturbing is that once the oppression is internalized, it doesn’t matter what the culture or environment is like.  I’ve worked with many highly accomplished women who have left toxic jobs or environments and then struggled to regain their self-confidence or to feel empowered to take action in their next endeavors. Despite their accomplishments and many talents, they hold themselves back, afraid to take risks or speak up, and they lack the desire and determination achieve their goals.

It’s like the old elephant story:  A woman walks past an elephant that is tied to a stake with a small rope. She is amazed that the elephant, in all of its strength and power, does not break the rope and escape his confinement. So, in her curiosity, she asks the elephant trainer how that thin rope manages to keep such a huge animal held in place. The trainer explains that when the elephant was a baby, the rope was used to tie him. As a baby, the elephant couldn’t physically break the rope and had been forever conditioned in his mind that the rope was stronger than he was. So, even though the elephant had grown much stronger and more capable of escape, his mindset kept him believing that he could not.

In my next post I will address how to overcgold brick lowres croppedome internalized oppression and how to regain your sense of power so that you can re-energize your career and live a more inspired and fulfilled life.