Being a Woman with Ambition — A Trait with Consequences
Sometimes, what can hold women back in their careers is not a lack of ambition, commitment, or tenacity — it’s the existence of it. What happens when ambition becomes “too much” for others? While there’s been significant progress on the treatment of women in workplaces, it’s time to start asking ourselves why some people still feel intimidated by a woman with clear, unapologetic ambition.
The answer lies in the nuances between theory and practice. We raise our youth to believe they can be anything they want, to believe that we’ve moved beyond gendered stereotypes and limiting mindsets —until it’s time to align our words with our actions and make room for the youth we’ve raised. Yes, the world is decorated with women leaders in all industries and professions. But at what cost?
There are dangers that come with being a woman who is perceived as ambitious, especially if you’ve not only shown, but also proven, that you’re willing to make things happen (even more so if it’s on your own terms). We see it unfold in the corporate world, classrooms, in family units, and on political stages. In addition to being labeled aggressive, bossy, or difficult, the “likeability,” qualifications, and intentions of ambitious women are often questioned.
In 2018, I conducted a study called The Tallest Poppy, an examination of what happens when a person is attacked, criticized, resented, or cut down because of their achievements (stay tuned — we are going to run the study again in January 2023). While conducting my research, I heard from countless women who shared stories about the consequences of their ambitions. They told stories of workplace bullying, hostility, and feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s easy to dismiss individual stories as examples of jealousy, envy, or a scarcity mindset, but when it becomes a common theme in the lives of thousands of powerful women, it becomes more than just a story — it could be a sign that society is not prepared for the women it has raised.
Here’s the thing: the world needs ambition. It reminds us of that often. Women are at the forefront of grassroots movements, the pursuit for justice, and are often the first to sound the alarm when things are not as they seem. From Women’s Month to the Women’s March, we’ve been changemakers every step of the way. But our ambition can sometimes place a target on our backs when we choose to use our grit, talent, and skills to further our own careers.
Having ambition has consequences, perhaps because society sometimes places limitations on what women can be ambitious about. Is everyone encouraged or “allowed” to be ambitious and high-achieving? The answer to rectifying how we treat ambitious women is in recognizing how we define the term, and who we celebrate for being ambitious, and who we do not.
How do we continue to work towards dismantling negative perceptions around ambitious women? We move forward through radical honesty, at both a social and individual level. It’s time we sit with ourselves and understand why we are comfortable telling our youth to reach for the stars, and dismissing them when they finally get that seat at the table. In the workplace, that looks like fostering an environment where the success of a woman is celebrated, rather than seen as a threat to the status quo. At the individual level, that means looking at those around you and paying attention to how you respond when they communicate their needs, vocalize their aspirations, and share their achievements.