I can still remember a particular time a couple of years ago that I was described by someone as ambitious, and without even thinking about it, ‘No I’m not!’ came out of my mouth in response.
Clearly, I was not the same person then as I am now. It feels strange to have ever subscribed to firstly the idea that ambition in a woman could be a negative quality, and secondly the idea that the most important thing to be seen as is ‘attractive’; but I also completely see where it came from. That’s what’s drummed into us all day every day, after all, and apparently, ambition is not such a pretty quality in a woman.
This isn’t exactly a groundbreaking observation; obviously, I’m not under the impression that I’m telling you something you don’t already know, since this has been being called out for years and years now. We’re probably all familiar with the double standards surrounding a man’s ambition versus a woman’s (and if we’re not, then we should be) – I’ve heard it countless times first hand on a day to day level in the workplace. If a man is ambitious, he is celebrated, smart, successful, attractive, and countless other things that are all generally seen as positives. If a woman is ambitious, she’s aggressive, bossy, demanding, overreaching, perhaps brilliant but also potentially a nasty piece of work…what else?
Well, I’ll let our good old pal google tell you. When I was thinking about this post, I googled the dictionary definitions of ‘ambition’ and ambitious’, thinking it would be interesting to refer to what their meaning without the surrounding implications for different genders;
Ambitious: Having or showing a strong desire to succeed.
The example of it being used in a phrase? ‘A ruthlessly ambitious woman’
And the definition of ruthless: Having or showing no compassion or pity for others.
My eyes rolled so hard that they’re still staring at my temporal lobe and haven’t faced forward since (which will at least explain my strange facial expression in some of these photos).
If a woman is ambitious, with a strong desire to succeed, she also has no compassion for others. I’m glad we cleared that up.
(Side note for anyone thinking this is going a bit far because it’s a harmless, random example, or whatever else: ruthless people exist, I’m aware of that. Said ruthless people may also be ambitious, and they may also be women; whether a ruthlessly ambitious woman who happens to be the subject of this particular example could possibly exist isn’t really the question, but I found it interesting/amusing to note that that was the phrase that had been used, given the reason that I was looking at the definition.)
What I’m trying to say is that it’s no wonder, really, that as women it can feel difficult to own, vocalise and display that ‘strong desire to succeed’. As well as my enlightening google session, I read a few articles on women and ambition when I was thinking about this subject, and nearly all of them referred to the idea of a woman ‘admitting’ or ‘revealing’ her ambition. Something to be kept secret for fear of repercussions, perhaps? Not the worst thing you could do, of course, not like stealing from an elderly relative or cheating on a partner for six years, but maybe akin to confessing that you’ve accidentally scraped someone’s Audi and then panicked and driven off.
The sad part is, I know what they mean, because it does feel like something you ‘admit’. While I’m no longer afraid to be an ambitious woman for fear of being seen as unattractive, bossy or demanding any more, I do worry about being considered to be overreaching or thinking beyond my abilities, which in my head still often comes with a nice little ‘humiliating’ tag on it. And this is why another massive barrier to owning my ambition has been the fear of embarrassment or failure.
I think for a lot of people, our willingness to ‘admit’ ambition is linked to how likely we think we are to achieve it. If you reveal your desire for success or your most coveted achievement to another person, it feels like you also set yourself up to potentially fail in their eyes. If you don’t get where you want to be, it wont just be you who knows it; everyone will.
For many of us (hi, welcome, fellow perfectionists and self-doubters), this is one of the most mortifying thoughts of all, and so that ambition becomes shrouded in doubt and fear, and ‘revealing’ ambitions becomes something that all feels rather embarrassing.
What if I say ‘I’m an ambitious person’ and my conversation partner says ‘oh really? That’s nice’ while thinking ‘Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it – you’re not exactly a high flyer, are you?’
What if I write, today, ‘I’m going to be a marketing manager’ or ‘one day I want to be blogging full time’ and then in 5 years I’m still doing exactly what I’m doing right now and then everyone laughs at how much of a failure I am and then I combust and die?
The thing is though, there’s a lot to be said for wearing your ambition – and your ambitions – loud and proud, and I actually think that being reticent about what I want to achieve has done nothing but hold me back up until now. If you can’t even say that you want something, how can you expect to end up with it, and if you don’t proclaim your ambition to the world, how can we make sure that one day no one is afraid to be ambitious?
So I’ll tell you now; I’m very ambitious, more so than I’ve cared to admit in the past, and I’ve decided to start owning it as a trait, and treating my ambitions as things that will happen, rather than dirty little secrets that I’m likely to fail at anyway. I’ve started being really open about things that I want to achieve at work (ask my boss), and here’s an ‘admission’ for you; I would love to one day make a portion of my income from writing something or other, in order to be able to take more time to do so. Blinking at the screen and hitting random letters on the keyboard at 1am after a day at work and an evening at the gym/making dinner/doing washing doesn’t make for the finest quality of writing, you see, which infuriates me a great deal, but I also need money for living.
Don’t be afraid to own your ambition, because as we know; it just means that you have a strong, burning desire to succeed (and you make your own definition of success), and ambitions are just things you strongly want to do or achieve. Ambition isn’t unattractive – far from it – and being open about what you want from life isn’t embarrassing, so it’s time to come out, say it, and be better placed than ever to pursue whatever it may be. It might not interest you to climb the career or corporate ladder (although if it does; smash it girl); it could be to write a book, start a side business, have a baby and a parenting blog, travel the world for a year, or do every last one of them in whichever order is right for you.
The next time someone describes me as ambitious, I’ll say ‘Yes; I am’.
Blazer – H&M | Jeans – H&M | Jumper – Primark | Boots – New Look | Bag – H&M | Sunglasses – Primark | Earrings – Primark
Photography: Rob Poor