The word ambition, by definition, is aligned with determination and drive.
But somewhere along the line the desire to achieve success gained a negative connotation, especially for women.
As an ambitious woman myself, I wanted to look into how this word became so dirty.
In her speech at the 2015 Glamour Magazine Woman of the Year Awards, Reese Witherspoon asked the audience why female ambition was a trait that people are so afraid of.
“Why do people have prejudiced opinions about women who accomplish things? Why is that perceived as a negative?” she asked.
Because it scares them. People are scared of ambition because it shows a different way forward. It’s competition, it’s strength, it’s someone who will challenge the system. For many, that is scary.
I believe ambition is actually incredibly attractive. It’s something I look for in my friends, colleagues, staff and my partner. I love seeing the drive and determination in someone who is working towards their goals.
But for many women, being ambitious is often painted as an unattractive and undesirable trait. They might be seen as aggressive, demanding, difficult and possibly even selfish.
If a man is ambitious, he’s a visionary. He’s seen as challenging the status quo and aspiring for a better life for himself. He’s bold, impressive and resourceful.
It seems the word ambition is interpreted so differently depending on who it’s attributed to.
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, wrote about this unfortunate phenomenon in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
“Aggressive and hard-charging women violate unwritten rules about acceptable social conduct. Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty. Female accomplishments come at a cost,” she writes.
I’m ambitious and proud of it
I’ve always been an ambitious, driven and determined woman.
Since I was a child, I’ve been continually setting goals. But when some people talk about my ambition, it’s not always spoken about in a positive way.
I’ve received comments like: “Oh, well, you certainly are ambitious, aren’t you?”
It’s not, “good for you” or “well done for following your dreams”. It’s said with a hint of snide and a slight look down the nose.
Fortunately, my parents and close family supported my ambitious goals and high-achieving ways, encouraging me over the years and, if anything, driving me further forward.
But not all women have experienced such supportive environments to foster their ambition.
There is no need to fear ambition
Saying a woman is ‘ambitious’ has been used as a way to cut her down, or to ensure she doesn’t climb too high on the ladder.
It’s not just men who have this view of ambitious women, it can also be women not supporting women. I feel it often comes down to jealousy, and that’s when ambition is used in a derogatory way, as a dirty word.
Instead of viewing someone’s ambition as a judgement on one’s own position and level of success, we can see it as a personal endeavour and support women in their aspirations.
Witherspoon suggests that we instead look to ourselves. She said: “I believe ambition is not a dirty word. It’s believing in yourself and your abilities”.
Changing the way we see ambition
According to CGU’s Ambition Index, 68 per cent of respondents believe Australians have a culture of negativity around ambition.
The index also showed that 7 in 10 women have hidden their ambition for fear of being labelled a bragger.
Privately and personally, we seem to think that ambition is a positive trait. However, when women want to show it, they feel they’re not able to or would prefer not to.
Future Women is an Australian club “connecting like-minded women through community, events and ambitious journalism” and their tagline is “Every woman for herself every woman”.
I love their outward support for women to embrace their ambition, and support one another in the process. This is what ambition can look like, together.
With the emergence of children’s books such as Good Night stories for Rebel Girls and Shout Out to the Girls!, stories of women who are ambitious, driven and successful may soon be more widely shared.
In closing her speech, Witherspoon challenged the audience with a message of hope, something the girls of tomorrow can embrace.
“What would happen if we were all brave enough to be a little bit more ambitious? I think the world would change.”
I know that believing in myself and my own abilities has helped me to reach my goals. It has also helped others to believe in me, and encourages me to continue pursuing success.
Ambition sparks ambition. So, go on, let your ambitious side shine.