The Agony Aunt: Is Ambition a dirty word when you are a woman?

Why do we find it so difficult to own our ambition and drive in the same way as men?

The short answer to the idea that ambition is a dirty word for women should be no of course it isn’t, how ridiculous. However, it’s unfortunately not that simple, yet. The way we talk about female ambition compared to male ambition (and indeed, the very fact we identify them as separate things) suggests there are still some prejudices when it comes to women aiming for the top.

There are lingering negative external attitudes towards women who are ambitious; but also internal conflict about ambition. It is often presumed that women do not have the same ambitions as men – or rather, that men are presumed to be ambitious by default, while for women it is an exception. With that and looking at the fight that other women have had to put in to gain their position in male dominated industries, many feel there is still no room for overt ambition displayed by women. We talk amongst ourselves in secret or in innuendo about our drive and passion.

Attitudes amongst women themselves are starting to change. There are interesting divides between younger and older women in ambitions as laid out in a Time Inc. survey in 2015. 48% of women in their 20s said they were “very” or “extremely” ambitious, compared to only 26% of women over 60. Younger women are also less likely to say it’s okay to not be ambitious– almost 60% said it was “not so” acceptable or completely unacceptable to be unambitious, compared to 44% of women in their late 40s and 50s.

So there remains a complex relationship between women and ambition as a result of sexist undertones in our society and its institutions, but does the problem also lie in the way we view patterns of work? The idea that long hours, constant ‘switch on’, endless meetings and trips are apparently the hallmarks of a driven, ambitious individual. Why can’t someone who is looking to work in a different way, or want to find a way to continue to progress their career around other commitments not be deemed ambitious too? Kevin Roberts, former CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi caused controversy in 2016 over comments about women not having the vertical ambition of their male counterparts. “Their ambition is not a vertical ambition; it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy… I don’t think [the lack of women in leadership roles] is a problem. I’m just not worried about it because they are very happy, they’re very successful, and doing great work.” Many felt he seemed to be saying that the lack of women at the top wasn’t a problem because they didn’t want to be there, rather than looking at the institutional barriers that prevent them being there.

It is assumed that having different priorities in life reduces one’s level of ambition, rather than considering the ambition that someone has to create a more suitable path to achieve the things they want, across ALL aspects of their life. Even men who are seeking to work in a different way are being branded as ‘not ambitious’ in comparison to those who are never at home.

At Obelisk we think that ambition in this century means working towards your goals and recognising that at different points in your life, your focus of ambition will change according to different priorities. It is time we felt comfortable with that. This approach allows for a ‘portfolio career’ path, which is non-linear and non-traditional and reflects not only the current economic reality that we see around us, but also the fact that organisations these days don’t expect ’employees for life’. As we evolve as a business we see the different ways that men and women of all ages are creating new ways of working that reflect their desire to work and balance their life. That is ambitious!

Anna Fels, writer of Do Women Lack Ambition? in Havard Business Review says we “have confused [ambition] with narcissism, with people who simply want to promote themselves at any cost. But really, what ambition is about is getting appropriate recognition for your skills.” And that should apply whether you work part time, full time, at home, in the office, or whatever way you choose.

So in order for ambition to not be a dirty word for women, we need to change how we define it, and not associate it with success at all costs or workaholic patterns. We need to start defining all of what we want in life – balance, manageable progression, new skills, and new experiences as part and parcel of our ambition. We need to re-examine our own bias and perceptions about ambition when applied to women, and we also need to challenge it when we hear those biases voiced by others. Say it loud and clear: I am an ambitious woman!