What’s the first word you think of when I say ‘ambition’?
Your response is very likely to depend on your gender. Women are more likely to have a negative or ambivalent response than men. They are more likely to play down their ambition.
Women experience a degree of internal conflict when answering the question, born out of a tension between our feminine conditioning and what we believe it means to be ambitious.
An ambitious woman might be portrayed as aggressive, ‘nasty’, even a ‘bitch’. An ambitious man is expected and accepted (not that this is without its issues). We say that our boys ‘know what they want’, we ask them what they are learning at school, they are ‘leaders’. We talk about how our girls are ‘bossy’ and tell them we like their dress.
For (far too) many women there’s an awkwardness to admitting their ambitions. It’s embarrassing.
I come across this often when I speak to friends and clients. When I ask my clients to describe their vision for their careers or to set goals, there is often a pause and a withdrawal. They’re embarrassed to admit the extent of what they want to achieve.
And yet there’s no evidence to suggest that women are actually less ambitious than men.
Indeed studies show that at the beginning of their careers men and women are equally ambitious but an ambition gap develops. Or put another way ambition is something affected by events.
A recent Harvard Business Review study found that women play down their ambitions, particularly when it comes to finding a (heterosexual) partner. This is reinforced by other research findings that men still prefer a partner with less professional ambition.
I would suggest that the playing down of ambitions is not the preserve of the romantic domain alone. It is a feature of all areas of women’s lives. And this problem (because it is a problem) is a societal one and it’s endemic.
It’s evident in the portrayal of ambitious women in books and films. We hear it in mansplaining or when a man takes credit for a woman’s ideas. And perhaps worst of all we experience it as women when we are judged by other women for our ambitions.
And all of this before we throw into the mix our roles as mothers and the expectations and judgments that accompany that. What kind of a mother works ‘all hours’? A bad mother, that’s what kind.
Of course, there are ambitious women who are comfortable with their ambitions. For the rest, this awkward relationship shows up in various ways.
It can look like, believing you’re not ambitious. Ambition looks a certain way (brash, loud, Machiavellian even) and if you don’t fit that mould, you might think you’re not ambitious.
Or, it can be about placing a socially acceptable veneer over your ambitions. You qualify your statements - you’d like to be part of a successful organization, rather than simply wanting to be successful. You caveat your emails, peppering them with ‘justs’ and ‘would you minds’. You avoid directness. You make yourself smaller. You dial down.
Worst of all perhaps you don’t allow yourself to be ambitious. You minimize your desires and write off your ambitions or you have ambitions that are so shrouded in doubt that you might as well not have them.
When you consider that ambition is simply a strong desire to achieve something, it seems slightly insane that it makes us so uncomfortable and yet it does. As women and mothers, how do we resolve this conundrum and does it even matter?
Shining a light on the madness, as simple as it is, is surely the starting point. Then we need to reclaim the word ambition because it definitely matters.
If you’re not aware of or willing to acknowledge your ambitions, then you’re facing a significant barrier to achieving them.
We are all ambitious. We all have things that we want to achieve. It just looks different in different people.
And fulfilling our ambitions as mothers, with all that entails, is challenging enough. It’s a series of choices and concessions. So proudly standing behind our ambitions is crucial.
I hope that you might consider your own desires and ambitions and pursue them with zeal whatever they might be, otherwise we all lose out.