I joined the Women’s Network in the fall of 2020 mostly because of the way that this organization rebrands ambition. Culturally and historically speaking, ambition in women has always been discouraged. For a woman to have professional hopes and dreams was almost unthinkable; but times have definitely changed for the better. Institutions all over the world have organizations like this one that encourage the career ambitions of women, and inclusivity in most industries has increased to keep pace with progress.
However, I want to talk about the ways in which ambition is expressed and received.
In 2004, Dr. Anna Fels wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled ‘Do Women Lack Ambition?’ She found that the answer, of course, was a resounding no. Her most striking observation was about acknowledging ambitions. As children, we have such clear goals — firefighter, astronaut, author, doctor — but as we grow up, we are less and less eager to talk about these ambitions. If they aren’t encouraged early on, Fels writes, then “the behavior isn’t repeated as often.”
If you get the chance to read the article, please do. If you don’t, that’s okay: here are my thoughts. It’s true that ambition is encouraged in women — but ambition doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build aspirations, to set concrete goals, to figure out what you really want. Most importantly, ambition never really has an end. Even when you achieve what you set out to get, you have to talk about it. People will compliment you, and you have to take the compliment — but the problem is that the rewards of ambition are still mostly being reaped by men. Women gain professional respect as they climb the ladder, but when it comes to taking the credit that they rightfully deserve, or acknowledging the things they’ve accomplished, it’s seen as arrogant and ungrateful. In her insightful article, Fels mentioned that the women she interviewed couldn’t talk about their careers without deflecting the responsibility for all that success — and it led me to realise that across a variety of professional settings, people tend to encourage ambition in women while simultaneously rejecting ambitious women.
Accomplishing something as a result of ambition is a professional achievement, but somehow, when these accomplishments are acknowledged, it’s interpreted as arrogant behavior, which is then counted as a personal flaw; and in professional settings, interpersonal relationships are highly influenced by the way in which other people perceive you. Just to provide an additional example, I’ve noticed this trend in literature: female characters that behave the way that male characters tend to behave are usually hated by readers for the same traits that are beloved in their counterparts. Ambition tends to be phrased as an inherently masculine trait, with some ancient writers going as far as to call ambitious women ‘man-minded’ — but this is not the case, and it is important to remember that women should be able to be proud of themselves without being judged for it. We’ve worked hard and earned our places through merit and consistency, and acknowledging this is not only important for our mental health, but also to draw a line in the sand: I did this, I worked hard, and I deserve the rewards.
On a personal level, start taking compliments. Don’t brush them off. Take credit for your work. Don’t discount the effort you put into getting what you want. It definitely takes time, but it is one hundred percent worth it; you’ve come this far. You are allowed to feel good about that, and you should scream it from the rooftop if you want to.
Bearing this in mind, I am more than willing to practice what I preach. I am happy to say that becoming a blog writer for the Women’s Network Chapter at Emory was a meaningful accomplishment for me. I love writing, I love the support that this little community provides for everyone within and around it, and I am so proud of myself and the other writers that work with this blog. I hope that we can all take a moment not only to realize our ambitions, but be vocal about our accomplishments without being cast in a negative light.
Fels, Anna. “Do Women Lack Ambition?” Harvard Business Review, 6 Nov. 2018, hbr.org/2004/04/do-women-lack-ambition.