By Catalyst

Do women lack ambition? We say no.

Women want to succeed, yet even when they do “all the right things” Catalyst has found that they earn less and progress more slowly than men. The fact that some women adjust their career advancement strategies after crashing into institutional barriers is a rational response to inhospitable workplaces. It is not an example of a lack of ambition.

Catalyst has been studying women’s ambition for nearly a decade. Our 2004 report, Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership, surveyed nearly 1,000 senior-level employees who shared similar backgrounds and characteristics. We found that women aspired to be CEOs in equal proportions as men. But the women—to a much greater extent than men—ran up against barriers, namely exclusion from informal networks, stereotyping, and a lack of role models. Likewise, our report, Leaders in a Global Economy, found that women and men have similar work values. The problem is this: men find workplaces more aligned with their values, women don’t.

What’s changed since 2004? Not much—women remain ambitious, but barriers still block their paths. And with few exceptions, women’s leadership is stalled in corporate America.

The Myth of the Ideal Worker, the latest report in our series on high potential employees, examined the career advancement strategies of thousands of MBA graduates from top schools around the world and the impact of these strategies on their careers. Women and men were equally represented in the two most proactive groups, indicating that ambition ran high among both genders. But being proactive paid off more in promotions and pay for the men.

In Pipeline’s Broken Promise, we found that among MBA grads who aspired to be CEO or senior executives, women progressed more slowly than men. And parenthood, industry, and previous experience didn’t explain the gender gap. The leadership and pay gaps balloon over time, suggesting that the problem lies with the system, not the women.

So what is the problem? Cascading Gender Biases, Compounding Effects revealed how gender biases are unintentionally embedded in talent management systems—biases that exclude those who don’t fit the male leadership model. Addressing these biases and rooting them out at the source are better ways to tackle inequality than blaming the women. Smart organizations are proactively addressing the barriers women face and are reaping the rewards.

Our research has pointed to one more powerful solution: sponsorship. Sponsors advocate for you from behind closed doors and ensure you’re visible when opportunities arise. The problem is that many women are over-mentored and under-sponsored. Some companies are recognizing this and are instituting formal sponsorship programs for women. At the same time, individuals are taking the lead on this front without waiting for a formal program to kick in by actively seeking sponsorship and being a sponsor to others, especially talented women who deserve it. This is one proven way to help narrow gender gaps.

The misguided assumption that women are less ambitious than men puts companies at risk of inadvertently underutilizing talented women and overlooking, or outright dismissing them, for key roles. This is a real loss for companies. Organizations need to step up and clear a path for women’s success.

Women are ambitious. But systemic barriers in the workplace mean that ambition, even when coupled with talent, isn’t always enough.

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization expanding opportunities for women and business.