Articles > Ambition a loaded word for women

Ambition a loaded word for women
Globe & Mail, June 23, 2006

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Are you ambitious? My guess is that, if you're a man, you can answer that without much deliberation. But if you are a woman, your answer is filled with all kinds of qualifiers.

When I'm described as ambitious, my first reaction is to get defensive. What I hear is: "Work is the centrepiece of your identity. You'll stop at nothing that gets in your way." And I conjure up images of "the suits" -- the types of women who are emotionally distant and obsessively career-focused at the expense of personal relationships and non-work interests. I think of power hunger, status-seeking, an obsessive desire to achieve that means steamrolling over everything in their path.

Strictly speaking, ambition, according to the dictionary, means only a strong drive for success. By definition, there is no moral freight to the word. Success is in the eye of the beholder. For some, it may mean climbing the corporate ladder. For others, it means doing their jobs to the highest level they can. Others find the true meaning of success entirely outside the boundaries of work.

But when you ask women whether they are ambitious, it is the negative connotations of the word that often first come to mind. We have a profound ambivalence about our desires for success.

In Necessary Dreams, her book on the underpinnings of female ambition, psychiatrist Anna Fels explores the roots of this ambivalence. Women, she argues, tie ambitiousness to competitiveness. This makes them uncomfortable because it conflicts with traditional ideas about femininity. It is because of this conflict that many women opt to nurture and defer, rather than compete.

Women who choose to compete may pay a price. In one recent study, social psychologist Madelaine Heilman found that both men and women attributed negative characteristics to accomplished women. These women were described as conniving and untrustworthy -- what Ms. Heilman called the "bitchiness cluster of traits."

This underlying conflict can lead women to self-censorship. They feel forced to conceal or play down their private desires.

I have developed a self-assessment instrument that measures different career motivations, including the desire for advancement. In career-planning workshops, I review the different types of motivators, then ask participants to raise their hand if a description is true of them.

When I get to the "ambition motivator," there are always a couple of women who gingerly put up their hands, look around the room to see what others are doing, then sheepishly drop their hands.

It's only after I give them "permission" to acknowledge their ambitiousness -- by saying, for example, that being interested in your career progress doesn't make you a bad person -- that they raise their hands high again, and are joined by a few others.

Interestingly, when women complete this assessment privately on-line, many more will describe themselves as motivated by a desire for career advancement. Not surprisingly, more men than women own up to being ambitious, both privately and publicly, and men are less uncomfortable about publicly acknowledging their desires to get ahead.

The negative views of female expressions of ambition explain why so many achievement-oriented women struggle with appearing decisive yet feminine, goal-focused but not driven or abrasive.

For some, the discomfort is so powerful that that they fail to acknowledge their desire for success even to themselves. They repress important needs, which leads them to make poor career decisions. They opt for backroom rather than high-profile work or back away from applying for more senior jobs that interest them.

Then, there are the women who play the martyr game throughout their careers -- "I am putting my children's/parents'/spouse's needs before mine because theirs are more important" -- and then, at midlife, are resentful of missed opportunities.

Of course, many women choose to downsize their ambitions for a time to, say, look after kids or aging parents. However, when they make a life-long habit of putting others' needs before theirs, they often end up bitter or disappointed.

What's happening on their relationship front, coupled with personality characteristics, also play a role in shaping ambitions. As one single, work-obsessed client said: "When you are in a relationship, there are others who want and need you. When you are alone, especially if you are childless, your work becomes your anchor because there isn't anything else in your life to give you a sense of purpose."

Of course, not all single women, with or without children, feel this way.

The shadow of traditional sex roles still colours many contemporary relationships. Men who need to see themselves as the family's primary breadwinner and whose sense of self is tied to their work frequently feel threatened by high-achieving women. This can lead women in such relationships to play down their accomplishments, and even to withdraw from an arena in which they could make significant contributions out of deference to their ego-sensitive partners. The result is that their sense of competence and belief in themselves is progressively eroded.

Some women are more competitive than others and could never play second fiddle. They compete with present or former partners less out of a genuine desire to achieve than to gain the satisfaction of one-upping their partners.

Sometimes, this results in poor career decisions. For instance, I know several women so motivated by a desire to outdo that they set up businesses based on grand schemes that ultimately failed. If they had been able to park their egos, they would have known these ventures were bad ideas.

Of course, there are also women who deny any ambitions to "be better" than others. But when they get together with their friends or network, they compete for who has the greatest sense of purpose or is most passionate about their work, rather than for money, power or job titles.
So are you ambitious? It all depends on what you mean.

Thinking about ambition

Get rid of the neurotic chatter. Do you worry that acknowledging your desires will make you appear aggressive or one-dimensional? Admit to yourself honestly what you want to achieve: Is it to move up the career ladder, earn a raise or get one more kick at the can? Recognize that being ambitious doesn't mean you are a bad or power-hungry person.

Identify the arena in which you want to be a player. There are many ways to exhibit ambition: climbing the corporate ladder, practising your profession the best you can, building a business or contributing to the community.

Acknowledge the underpinnings. What's behind your ambition: Is it the pleasure of achievement or are other dynamics at work, such as competing with a spouse? Many people achieve remarkable things for what others might describe as dysfunctional reasons. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But you need to understand your motivations and control your impulses so they don't take you to the dark side -- a relentless work focus at the expense of other aspects of life.

Think life chapters. Different periods present different opportunities to deeply satisfy one need, whether it is time for children, education, career success or giving back. Focus on what is most important to you now.

Be sensitive to your changing aspirations. Too many people still strive for achievements based on earlier life scripts. But our needs and priorities are constantly changing. While you once may have been driven to become vice-president, today, your ambition may to become a great gardener or raise more funds for your community centre. Let what matters to you drive your ambition.