Why are women so afraid of the word ‘ambition’?

It’s the reason why you don’t yell out that answer in the boardroom when you know you’ve got it correct. It’s why you humbly downplay your achievements, attributing them to “pure luck” or a “team effort”. And it’s possibly the reason why you were excluded from that all-important client meeting; you’re renowned for attributing the credit to someone else even if your blood, sweat and tears are smeared all over that professional masterpiece. Yes, this could all have something to do with embracing your ambition.

When Reese Witherspoon exclaimed in 2015 that ambition shouldn’t be a “dirty word”, and then penned an essay for Glamour in September about warming to the concept, she made women around the world reflect on their attitudes towards the term. Ambition in the past has been associated with aggression and greed, creating a divide from the shy, gentle and compassionate (thanks Bem Sex-Role Inventory) female qualities we’re stereotyped to possess. Then, in line with International Women’s Day this year, fashion designer Tory Burch launched the ad campaign “Embrace Ambition” and celebs from the likes of Kerry Washington to Yara Shahidi came out donning slogan T-shirts to support female entrepreneurs. Why? Because we need the encouragement to own our ambition.

“The women I interviewed hated the very word. For them, ‘ambition’ necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. None of them would admit to being ambitious,” psychiatrist Anna Fels wrote in Harvard Business Review back in 2004 (she’s also the author of Necessary Dreams, about said topic). So how far have we come since then? A Harvard study published in May discovered that most single female MBA students deliberately downplayed their ambitions (which included decreasing their salary expectations), as well as avoided acting to enhance their careers, if they thought it could ruin their prospects of marrying a classmate or co-worker.

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So why do some of us experience a resistance towards embracing ambition? For starters, we could fear being deemed a narcissist if we’re yearning to seek recognition for our work, yet (a healthy amount of) reinforcement or validation is often what we need to advance our skills and feed that ambition. Perhaps we could be labelled as power-hungry or workaholics instead of being respected for our strong work ethic and dedication. And we also could be inclined to feel selfish when we put our own needs above others, even when that crucial step of filling up your own cup must precede the latter. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise then that a survey from GSM London found 92 per cent of women believe they aren’t putting their ambitions into practice at work. PwC’s 2015 report “The female millennial: A new era of talent research” found another roadblock – that 35 per cent of women in their thirties do not feel there are female role models in a senior position that resonate with them at work.

Embracing ambition can feel uncomfortable if you’re foreign to the concept. In Robin Romm’s Double Bind, a collection of essays on women and ambition, there’s an exploration of how we are caught in a power struggle between achievement and humility, strength and gentleness. The qualities associated with women are so often mismatched with the attributes of successful leadership. Where’s the sweet spot? We’re encouraged to be tough. But not too tough. Be bold. But within your boundaries. Tread with caution, as to not overstep the invisible line that exists because you were born female and not male. Sheryl Sandberg really was on to something in 2013 when she highlighted the “ambition gap” between men and women.

When it comes to an industry like technology, nurturing ambition in women couldn’t be more needed. “Women make up just 4 per cent of start-up founders here in Australia and there are more men named Peter running ASX 200 companies than there are women. It’s safe to say we’re a rare breed. Like anything that challenges the status quo it will always face resistance, cynicism and at times negativity,” explains Ally Watson, ‎co-founder of Australian organisation Code Like A Girl, which encourages females to pursue jobs in coding.

“I’ve had many men tell me that I’m defying the biological ceiling and that women don’t have it in their DNA to be programmers or computer scientists. There is countless evidence and research to invalidate these so-called opinions,” she continues.

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“My biggest challenge has been removing the stigma that ‘tech is only for guys’ and many speculate that the industry’s ‘bro-culture’ is worsening the gender gap. In my opinion, this is the by-product of unconscious bias and gender stereotyping that we’ve been exposed to from a young age, way before we even reach working age,” says Watson.

Her solution for the discrepancy? Exposure. “It’s so important that kids, especially young girls, are exposed to technology careers and STEM skills from an early age are encouraged. Girls are not exposed to problem-solving and electronic-based games in the way young boys are. This disparity has led to a huge imbalance in the number of boys compared to girls who pursue technology as a career path,” says Watson.

And then there’s the big F-word: fear. Cindy Batchelor, executive general manager, NAB Business at National Australia Bank, acknowledges the potential fear behind ambition. “The notion of negativity [in relation to ambition] may stem firstly from women themselves. If a woman (or a man) declares ambition, there is no guarantee of success but rather a statement of intent. For women, there may be more doubt in their own minds or a potential fear of failure, particularly if they declare it publicly and don’t reach their stated ambition. I say ‘Have a go. If you shoot for the stars and land on the moon, it’s still likely to be an amazing ride’. I don’t believe ambition in women is a dirty word or arrogant, simply a statement of intent to be the best you can be,” Bachelor explains.

And as Susan Jeffers says, “Feel the fear and do it anyway”.

While we still have a long way to go, working women in Australia also have plenty to celebrate. Sydney and Melbourne have secured spots within the top 20 cities around the world to attract and nurture the growth of women leading businesses, according to the Dell Women Entrepreneur Cities Index released earlier this year. For Watson, the evidence really does prevail. “Code Like A Girl launched Australia’s first female-focused coding workshops for young girls in Australia for Grades 1 to Year 12. We wanted to create a safe place for girls to ask questions and be curious about the world of technology. Teach girls more than just computational thinking and coding skills by putting a great emphasis on empowering young girls to feel excited about the possibilities and confident to pursue careers in technology,” explains Watson.

And when you hit roadblocks while putting those ambitious goals into practice, which you inevitably will, Batchelor says those speed bumps are still influential in helping you to cultivate resilience and determination. “The first front line sales leadership role I applied for I was unsuccessful in achieving. I was bitterly disappointed but decided I had two choices, give up or pick myself up and try again. I chose the latter and although I took a slightly different path, my career was fast-tracked through my own determination to be successful. Sometimes failure is our most valuable lesson and the greatest motivator.”

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She continues: “Perhaps we need a reframe of ambition—I simply see it for anyone as a statement of their intention to be the best they can be. Be clear about your goals, understand your strengths and leverage them for success. The definition may change along the way. People change their ambition due to life circumstances or experiences – so many successful people are not defined by the title they hold but rather the impact they have. Be courageous enough to define and state your own ambition—you may just inspire others in the process! Anything is possible; you are only limited by your own mindset. Sometimes the wisdom of others can help you believe in what is possible for you—find yourself a mentor you admire and believe in so they can guide you in your own journey.”

Watson also believes that courage is a crucial element to embracing ambition: “Be brave and strive for progress rather than perfection. We often watch opportunities pass us by waiting for the right moment or for it to be perfect. For young girls, dream big, there is nothing you cannot do. For older girls, it’s never too late to try something new.”

We’re encouraged not to make our partners, family and friends, or even our possessions responsible for our happiness, as it’s something we need to foster ourselves. That same sentiment rings true for our ambition. Everything we need to succeed, in whatever measure that is, we already internally possess. The concept desenrascanço, which loosely means putting things together with resources you already have within and following your instincts (read: trust yourself), is also conducive to following your ambition. If ever you come across one of those challenging situations where you may question your goals, remember to tune inwards and remember that you’ve got this. Your drive for greatness deserves to be acknowledged, better yet, celebrated.

The next time there’s an opportunity to dampen your ambition, or hide your fierce determination, how about you shine a big bright spotlight on it, and quieten that inner voice that could be underestimating your capabilities. Owning your ambition, no matter how uncomfortable it feels at the time, is exactly what will lead to growth and change. The more we can embrace those qualities of ambition—be it strength, courage, resilience, determination—the more we will inspire women around us to own the trait as they rightfully should.

We really do run the world, but only if we believe we do.



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