3 out of 5 women at high-ranking positions in roles such as CEOs and directors responded with a resounding “no” when asked if they would call themselves ‘ambitious’ in an interview that talked about their success in their respective industries. Following suit with a group of women who were asked the same question in an interview many years ago by psychiatrist Anna Fels.
Through her research conducted in the early 2000s, Fels found the main reason women shy away from the word ambitious was the heavy negative connotation behind it. Women themselves likened the word to being greedy, manipulative to their benefit and implicative of egotism when applied to themselves, however, the meaning changed when applied to men. In fact, Fels also found that men gladly accepted the word ambitious as a label to describe them and saw it as a virtue they must possess. However, they didn’t perceive the same meaning when they applied it to women. What I am curious about, and I’m sure even you are, is when and how did these two different notions of the word ‘ambitious’ come about? And how have they persisted for these many years?
Fels asked the group of women what their childhood ambitions were. From their replies and those of their male counterparts, she found that as children, boys and girls had the same understanding of the connotation of ‘ambition’ and ‘ambitiousness’ as a positive value which they equally desired. Fels also found that ambition was constructed upon the mastery of a skill and affirmation or recognition for that mastery. This goes to say that mastery of any skill was reward for the effort taken in it and that reward created ambition while also being fueled by it. So, ambition became both a product of and a source for mastery and recognition.
However, as boys and girls grew up, two separate connotations of the word arose and there’s none other than societal gender norms to blame. Women’s behaviors and attitudes are implicitly and even explicitly policed constantly by a society which encourages self-effacing attitudes while deferring attention and recognition. These societal norms persisted and influence women’s self-images despite being detrimental to them because of the lack of support from other women to break away from those societal expectations, according to Fels. She found that women influence other women’s behaviors and attitudes, and which aligns with well-known social psychologist Albert Bandura’s research in the social learning theory.
Accordingly, women would also look up to other women for affirmation and recognition. When they do not receive the recognition for accomplishments which are deemed “masculine” even from other women, they become discouraged. This produces a dulled attitude toward competition. After routinely not being given the recognition and support, whilst also being reprimanded for behaving the way “a man would,” women are taught not be ambitious and learn of it as an undesirable quality in women.
The baseline here is that the fixation on the feminine image overshadows instinctive emotions such as the drive to achieve and relish in success. All which contribute in a great way to our self-images and self-belief.
By rejecting the word, we play into the gender stereotypes that the patriarchy has set for us.
We must first, slowly remove the layer of gender-wise connotation and start reading the word as we first read it: having or showing a strong desire or determination to succeed.
Second, we must support each other and give each other the recognition and reinforcement each of us yearn in our endeavors. We can do this in 4 simple steps.
1. Share each other’s victories. If you see your gal pal pouring their heart out and you find it inspiring, share it to your Instagram story or re-tweet it!
2. Challenge each other. Puts your wits to a test in a friendly match-healthy competition and maybe give each other feedback after.
3. Give and get help. Help your peer out if you can and don’t be shy to ask for help because nine out 10 times you WILL be helped.
4. Keep the conversation going. This is how The Women’s Network puts its mission in motion.
I hope this post has helped if not all, at least some of you redefine ambition (pun intended).