"We need our boys to be as ambitious to contribute in the home, and we need our girls to be as ambitious to achieve in the workforce." This was Sheryl Sandberg's message at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Facebook COO, an ambitious, high-achieving woman in her own right, spoke of an "ambition gap" in the way we are raising young girls and boys.

Sandberg quoted a recent poll in The Economist which tallied the percentage of women who self identified as "very ambitious." Here are the results:

• United States: 36%
• Brazil: 59%
• China: 66%
• India: 85%

Ironically, women in the more developed countries self report as less ambitious. Why is that? Cultural messages impact a girl's ambition starting at a very young age. Girls are praised for being nice and getting along with others, while boys are praised for being assertive risk takers. Not surprisingly, then, success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. In order for women to ascend to the highest levels of the C-suite, they are going to have to take charge, be assertive, competitive, and bossy in the best possible sense of the word, all things that contradict expectations of the way "good girls" behave.

As I mentioned in my article last month, "The Bitch & the Ditz: Mainstream Media's Negative Impact on Women and Girls, the media's direct message to women and girls is, "looks matter; brains don't." Last month, Gymboree, the store that sells clothing for young children, displayed t-shirts for sale — the phrase on the shirt for boys read, "Smart like daddy," while the phrase on the shirt for girls read, "Pretty like mommy." Girls are encouraged from a very young age to dress up like princesses — make-up, high heels, wigs and all. While I played my fair share of dress-up as a kid, my dad also expected that I would play sports with the boys and achieve at a high level.

Another factor impacting the ambition gap is the lack of balance when it comes to home and family care. When a couple each works full time, women are still overwhelmingly responsible for the majority of household duties. Many companies have flex-time policies, but internal pressures to use them, particularly for men, work against their utility. The message must be sent from the top down that equal maternity and paternity leave and flexibility for men to leave the office to be with a sick child are supported and valued.

In order to begin to close the ambition gap, here are a few additional suggestions:

1. Reward and praise girls for being strong, smart, competitive, and ambitious; not pretty and princess-like.

2. Identify strong women leaders and role models and discuss them with your kids. Talk about what strengths each women possesses and how those strengths influenced her career path.

3. Encourage boys to help around the house, cook meals, and do laundry.

4. At work, make an effort to really understand the flex-time policies offered at your company. Talk to your boss and human resources personnel about ways these policies could be improved and/or enforced. Ask them to give you exact statistics about who is using these policies.

5. If you are a working mom, stop apologizing for your status as a working mom. Recent research suggests that working moms are happier than their non-working peers. Instead of justifying your status, think about the wonderful example you are setting for your kids.

Cultural shifts don't happen overnight, but we need to have a serious discussion about the ambition gap that exists. As Sandberg so aptly stated, "Why not use the talents of the entire population to address the very considerable needs this world has?" Let's set a different course now.
Paula Davis-Laack is a lawyer turned positive psychology practitioner, professional coach, and work/life expert specializing in stress, work, and lifestyle issues for high-achieving women. She is also an advocate for empowering women and girls in life and in business. Connect with Paula via:
Her website: www.marieelizbethcompany.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/marieelizabethcompany
Twitter: www.twitter.com/pauladavislaack

About the Author

Paula Davis-Laack J.D., M.A.P.P.

Paula Davis-Laack, J.D., M.A.P.P., is a stress management and work/life performance expert providing strategies for a healthier, more resilient you.