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Ambition: Femininity and Climbing the Ladder of Success

Women need to ignite their inner ambitions.

Key points

  • Women may experience tension between their internal drive for ambition and their socialization to be "softer."
  • Women may have less interest in senior leadership roles due to how they are treated at work.
  • In childhood, girls’ ambitions are direct and clear. In adulthood, ambition becomes more complex.
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One of the most iconic representations of the relationship that women (and girls) have with ambition is the Fearless Girl statue by the sculptor Kristen Visbal, which an advertising agency conceived for an investment firm whose 28-person leadership team contains five women. The fashion designer Tory Burch launched an ad campaign called "Embrace Ambition." A New York Times article about the "Embrace Ambition" campaign calls it a "public service announcement" aiming to reclaim what has become a dirty word for women.

A new anthology of essays about women and ambition, Double Bind, edited by the fiction and memoir writer Robin Romm, tries to embrace the concept more substantively. In her introduction, Romm, who is in her early forties, writes about her sense, as a young woman, that "striving and achieving had to be approached delicately or you risked the negative judgment of others." She calls this "the double bind of the gender, success paired eternally with scrutiny and retreat." The symbolism is not lost on women who have been competitive and bold about their aspirations to get the corner office. There is that constant tug-of-war between the hard drive ambition she has to be on top and the ever-present socialization to be soft. Some women argue ambition is the last feminist taboo that needs to be penetrated; it is no longer a dirty word.

Bourree Lam, in her Atlantic article, "How Office Culture Can Crush Women's Ambitions," argues that women often report less interest in senior leadership roles not because of lack of motivation but maybe because of how they are treated:

"In work environments where both men and women felt that the company was making progress toward gender diversity within its top ranks, all genders were more likely to aspire to a leadership position. For women at a pivotal part of their career, ages thirty to forty, only sixty-six percent reported wanting a leadership position at companies that weren't seen as making progress in gender diversity. That's compared with eighty-five percent of women who worked at companies they felt were making progress."

In her provocative Harvard Business Review article, "Do Women Lack Ambition," Anna Fels suggested in psychiatry, as in most branches of science, the study of a complex phenomenon often begins with researchers tracing it to its earliest, simplest form. So she decided to review the childhood ambitions recalled by the women she had interviewed. She claimed, "Compared with the wordy, ambivalent responses these women had given about their current ambitions, their childhood ambitions were direct and clear. They had a delightfully unapologetic sense of grandiosity and limitless possibility. Each of the women had pictured herself in an important role: a great American novelist, an Olympic figure skater, a famous actress, president of the United States, a fashion designer, a rock star, a diplomat."

Most importantly, she suggested there are two "faces" of ambition. She indicated that two undisguised elements were joined together of all childhood ambitions. One was mastery of a particular skill: writing, dancing, acting, diplomacy. The other was recognition: attention from an appreciative audience. Looking through studies on the development of boys and girls, she noticed that they virtually always identified the same two components of childhood ambition. There was a plan that involved a real accomplishment requiring work and skill, and there was an expectation of approval in the form of fame, status, acclaim, praise, or honor.

There is no evidence that the desire to acquire skills and receive affirmation for accomplishments is less present in women than in men. So why is it that we find such dramatic differences between men and women in their attitudes toward ambition and how they create, reconfigure, and realize (or abandon) their goals? It should be no surprise that women receive less recognition than men for their accomplishments. This acknowledgment is one of the reasons women are confronted with a confusing message that it is not feminine to be ambitious.

Organizations can take initiatives to promote diversity, but day-to-day interactions that signal to all genders that the company is interested in nurturing female employees may make a big difference. The everyday micro-behaviors can add up to communicating the fundamental desire for a pipeline and pathway for women who aspire to be ambitious. It includes everything, such as the attitude of managers, inclusion in high-priority meetings and decision-making, a slap on the back, and monetary rewards for a job well done. It is a mistake to assume that women aren't competitive or don't want senior leadership roles. Their aspirations can be enhanced with an attitude of acceptance and eliminating micro-inequities.

Although there is no denying an inclusive environment may trump the socialization women have received to squelch their ambitions to be on top, they have to take the initiative to develop a comfort level and make friends with their desire to strive to be the best. Women need to ignite their inner ambitions and grab their entitled leadership roles.