Three unanswered questions on women and ambition

Updated: Jul 8

blue, silver and pink Ambition necklace on concrete

I’ve recently been reading the book “Lift as You Climb” by Viv Groskop. It’s different from other professional development books in that it mixes discussion on the issues that face women at work today, amongst the practical hints and tips on such areas as networking, mentoring and finding your voice. It doesn’t offer any answers (let’s face it, there aren’t any easy ones) but it does ask the questions that many of us are thinking about and are not sure how to address:

Are you “letting the side down”, if you are female but don’t want to be the next CEO?

picture of business woman hands sat on a chair and typing on a laptop

I’m definitely in this category of wanting a successful career, but perhaps only to a point. I remember being interviewed by a colleague a few years ago who was doing MSc in Organisational Psychology. She asked me “Are you ambitious?” I wasn’t sure if I was just expected to say “yes” as an intelligent, modern, thirty-something female professional. I stopped myself and asked, “it depends what you mean by ambitious.” She gave me a knowing smile, suggesting I wasn’t the first interviewee who had answered that way. In the Cambridge dictionary, “ambition” is defined as “a strong desire to achieve something”. That “something” can take many forms - having children, pursuing a hobby to a high standard, or to be in a role at work where we feel we are making a difference. It’s similar when we talk about “success”. Each of us needs to find our own definition of success. Who are we to say that someone else’s definition is wrong?

Even as children, different ambitions are looked on with varying levels of pride and scepticism. A lot of this depends on the cultural context. The play Billy Elliot describes the journey of a working-class boy from County Durham whose ambition to become a ballet dancer is frowned upon by his father and brother. For very different reasons, a middle-class teenage girl whose dream is to leave school at 16 and take on an apprenticeship as a plumber may also be discouraged by her well-meaning parents.

What mixed messages do we give girls?

I attended a mediocre comprehensive school with less than stellar GCSE results but was fortunate to have parents and teachers who told me I could do whatever I wanted. I remember the first time I ever did one of those “career questionnaires” - which in those days was on paper, rather than online. It came up with “actuary”, probably because I enjoyed maths and was good at it. I had no idea what an actuary was until I looked it up, but it was something that I kept as a vague career goal until I was about halfway through university. No-one thought that was a silly career for me and I was encouraged to do the subjects I was good at regardless of whether it was seen as a “female” subject - I was the only girl at my college who did A-Level Further Maths (and interestingly the only one who wasn’t doing A-Level Physics).

On the other hand, though, I got an unmistakable message that the way to do well at school and life would be to keep my head down, don’t question authority, follow the rules and “be nice”. Not a recipe for success in a corporate world, and I suspect advice that my male classmates had not been given.

Is biology to blame?

I’ve written in a previous blog about whether organisations need to change how senior roles operate in practice, rather than expecting women to change to fit them. But even with this, do an equal number of women and men want these roles? There is a societal expectation that women will take on the majority of the childcare and child admin responsibility, leading to a disproportionate impact of the pandemic on female careers. From my own experience, I wanted to take on the additional child-related duties (most of the time!) - partly due to an emotional pull to be close to my children and partly because I am a bit of a control freak and wanted to make sure everything was as I wanted it to be. Are these typical female traits? Does biology have a part to play here? Or is it just societal pressure?

Finding your own definition of success

two women of colour sat at a table writing in notebooks and smiling at each other

Either way, ambition is not a dirty word. But it’s not a simple word either. What is clear is that we all, regardless of gender, need to be clear as to what success means for us and use this to guide future career planning. It helps us to say “no” to some things, “yes” to others and to be able to resist the pressure of family, friends and society who may seek to force their definition of success upon us. Working with an executive coach may help bring us the confidence to take this step.

We also need to recognise that our ambitions will change over time - and that this is fine too, otherwise as the “modern monk” Thomas Merton said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

If you would like to have some support on finding your own definition of success then please reach out, I would be happy to help.

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