Ambition may no longer be a dirty word but as a desirable, female quality it certainly doesn’t feel squeaky clean. I asked my friends what the term ‘ambitious woman’ conjured up for them, and they reported the following: Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, stiletto heels, Dior Poison perfume and being a bitch to get ahead. It’s a bleak picture, definitely 1980s, and enough to put you off owning your ambition forever.
And this attitude’s not just a quirk among my small sample of silly friends. It’s actually consistent with findings from larger studies. Columbia Business School asked participants to rate the likeability of two case study characters, called Heidi and Howard. The characters were actually identical in all traits, they just had different names. Howard’s ambition was considered an attractive quality, whereas Heidi’s made her seem unlikeable. Furthermore, findings from Pew Research Centre found that ambition was among the top three ideal qualities a man should possess. But, unsurprisingly, it didn’t make the cut for women.
Before you put your head in your hands and despair at the double standards, pause to consider your own prejudices on the subject. I’ve included some prompts below which will hopefully help you to get clear on your attitudes around ambition and make owning your own ambition a little easier.
Consider your mum’s attitude to ambition
For most people their same sex role model will likely be their mum. And her attitude to ambition may have had a significant impact on yours. Our mothers play a part in shaping what we consider to be an appropriate and attainable level of ambition.
Some of us had mothers who worked hard, were well paid for it and could model workplace ambition and attainment. If this is the case for you then owning your ambition should be straightforward. Many of us had mums who worked as a means to earn money, and would have considered it lofty to talk about ambition. And of course there are mums who either worked hard but weren’t well paid or didn’t work at all – for whatever reason. My own mum didn’t work until I was 12 and at high school. This was lovely as it meant we had her at home with us. But if she ever had work ambitions then she never shared them with me. My mum was also raised Catholic. So she aspired to virtues like modesty, humility and selflessness, but regarded ambition as unladylike and grasping.
Awareness of your own ambition, and the ambition you witnessed in childhood, can allow you to untangle your own feelings on the subject. It can also enable you to examine implicit and explicit beliefs which may be holding you back.
Madonna is ambitious, but so is Oprah Winfrey
Madonna is an ambitious woman and makes no secret of it. Anyone who’s seen In Bed with Madonna, or grew up alongside the Material Girl, will know she’s confrontational, strategic and shrewd
But equally Oprah Winfrey is an ambitious woman. And if you’ve ever seen her chat show, or read her books, you’ll know she’s thoughtful, empathic, eloquent, intuitive. And probably also strategic and shrewd.
My point is that often ambition doesn’t look like we imagine it to. Too often we hear the word ambition and think of hackneyed old stereotypes from soap operas. In Dynasty, Dallas and even Knots Landing, the ambitious women were always represented as bitchy, unethical and duplicitous. This portrayal continues to be damaging and can dampen our own ambitions. It is absolutely possible to be ambitious and kind, ambitious and thoughtful or ambitious and introverted. Being ambitious isn’t to the detriment of other qualities, and isn’t a single sum game.
Know the qualities that will work for you in the workplace
If you’re around the same age as me (40), then you probably began your career believing you have to appear a certain way. That the typically feminine traits of empathy, kindness and collaboration weren’t worth much. But that decisiveness, detachment and a logical approach were. However, according to Alice Olins, co-founder of the Step Up Club, it’s vulnerability that really makes a difference to becoming a leader in the workplace. Writing for Red magazine Olins’ states, “We can’t connect with others if we’re not truthful. First with ourselves and then with those around us. When we’re vulnerable we show our true selves and we pave the way for others to follow.”
If you’d like to share your personal strategies for owning and embracing your ambition, then please do. I’d love to hear them, just comment below.