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What Holds Women Back From Realizing Their Ability and Ambition?

When women compete for high-visibility jobs, their femininity is often assailed.

Key points

  • When women do something for themselves, they may be seen as selfish.
  • When women want both career and family, their ambitions and femininity are often questioned.
  • Women have more significant opportunities for forming and pursuing their own goals now than at any time in history.
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For the majority of my training career, I employed the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a psychological instrument used for studies of gender. It is the most famous and widely applied psychological measure of femininity, masculinity, androgyny. The test includes 60 descriptive adjectives: 20 masculine traits, 20 feminine traits, and 20 neutral traits that subjects use to rate themselves. These traits were originally chosen from 200 personality characteristics by 100 male and female undergraduates at Stanford University in the 1970s. The students, mostly white and middle-class, were asked to rank the desirability of these traits for men and women in American society. The characteristics chosen to define femininity in the BSRI are yielding, loyal, cheerful, compassionate, shy, sympathetic, affectionate, sensitive to the needs of others, flatterable, understanding, eager to soothe hurt feelings, soft-spoken, warm, tender, gullible, childlike, does not use harsh language, loves children, gentle, and femininity.


Examining these characteristics, two basic tenets of femininity emerge. The first is that femininity exists only in the context of a relationship. A woman's sexual identity is based on qualities that cannot be expressed in isolation. The second tenet that emerges from the BSRI adjectives is that a woman must be providing something for the other person, be that person a lover, a child, a sick parent, a husband, or even a boss. In short, they are seen as "other-oriented." Giving is the principal activity that defines femininity. Often, if women do something for themselves, they are seen as selfish. This may help explain why professional women are credited with being highly supportive managers and excellent team players. She must maintain a careful balance and not tip the scale away from feminity. By focusing their energy on these aspects of work–life, women can be both businesslike and feminine.

Near the top of the list of resources that women are asked to provide is recognition. They are asked to supply personal credit for their husbands and relinquish recognition in the work sphere to the men they work with. When women speak as much as men in a work situation or compete for high-visibility positions, their femininity is routinely assailed. They are caricatured as either asexual and unattractive or promiscuous and seductive. Something must be wrong with their sexuality.


Masculinity, by contrast, is defined neither by relationships nor by what men provide for others, except financially. One can be masculine in solitary splendor. The BSRI adjectives that describe masculinity are self-reliant, strong personality, forceful, independent, analytical, defend one's beliefs, athletic, assertive, has leadership abilities, willing to take risks, makes decisions quickly, self-sufficient, dominant, ready to take a stand, aggressive, acts as a leader, individualistic, competitive, ambitious, and masculinity. The "other" appears in these adjectives chiefly as someone against or over whom the man must assert himself. He has to be able to stand alone, and any overt dependence will question his sexual identity.

When women have achieved access to social influence and recognition, legal and political rights, educational opportunities, career options, their capacity to be "real women" has been questioned. Presently, this questioning occurs when career women move beyond the early career stage and are trying to start families. It is a no-win for her. There are many criticisms of career women who cannot conceive because they are stressed due to climbing the ladder. Another criticism they may be subjected to is that if they do have children, they will be unfit mothers.

Women tend to feel foolish asking for appropriate acknowledgment of their contributions. They find it difficult to demand proper support—in time, money, or promotion so they can pursue their own goals. They feel selfish when they do not subordinate their needs to those of others.

Clearly, there are many situations in which both the masculine and feminine BSRI traits are compatible and complementary. One can be a dynamic leader who is also sensitive and responsive to the needs of your staff. But there are also scenarios in which the traits inevitably conflict. Such conflicts arise when jobs become more competitive, and couples begin to have children. Women then juggle time for work, leisure, financial independence, and career advancement. At this time, women's obligations of traditional femininity reemerge in full force. Women must decide whether to subordinate their needs to their male partners and colleagues. Women have more significant opportunities for forming and pursuing their own goals now than at any time in history. But doing so is socially accepted only if they prioritize the needs of their family members, especially husbands and children. If this requirement isn't met, women's ambitions, as well as their femininity, may be called into question.


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