Ambition: Why is it still a dirty word for women?

Girls are chided for being pushy or bossy. But ambition should be celebrated

For women, ambition is sometimes seen as a dirty word. The rationale seems to go that it’s one thing to have success foisted upon you; it is another, entirely less lovely, thing to actively hunger for it. If you’re a woman, saying you got lucky is fine. Saying “I deserve this, because I worked so hard to get it” is still, even in a more feminist world, much less socially acceptable.

Part of it is that femininity has traditionally been wrapped up in notions of caring, self-sacrifice and submissiveness. We see this in evidence every year around Mother’s Day, the annual feast of women being celebrated in lurid shades of pink and lavender for putting themselves last the other 364 days of the year. Where are all the cards that say “Thanks for being a powerful role model” or “Thanks for teaching me to take risks”?

But the tempering of girls’ ambition begins long before motherhood. Girls typically outperform boys in primary school. But by the time puberty strikes, girls are already playing down their ambitions, frightened to fail, or to be seen as “pushy”, “bossy” or a “show off”. Female competitiveness is equated with “bitchiness” and “cattiness”. There’s an entire bingo card to be made of all of the playground insults used to keep female ambition in line.

Girls tend to ruminate on negative feelings more than boys do, and to set themselves impossibly high standards

And the evidence is not just anecdotal. International surveys show that at 12, boys and girls are about as confident as one another. But that changes as puberty hits. A study of 1,300 US teens by Ypulse, quoted in a new book, The Confidence Code for Girls, found that between the ages of eight and 14, girls’ confidence levels drop by 30 per cent. Boys’ confidence drops in their teens too, but at the age of 14, it’s still 27 per cent higher than that of girls.


Girls tend to ruminate on negative feelings more, and set themselves impossibly high standards. Some of it is also external – another study of children of primary school age by Columbia University conducted in 2012 found that teachers and family members reward girls for their people-pleasing behaviours. "Often, this is because it just makes parents' and teachers' lives easier . . . But perfectionism, of course, inhibits risk-taking, a willingness to fail, and valuable psychological growth," write the authors of The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, in The Atlantic.

Part of the solution the authors suggest is encouraging girls’ participation in competitive sports. A study from the accounting firm EY and espnW, the US sports site for women which is owned by ESPN, found that 94 per cent of the women with C-suite jobs in the US played competitive sports. It doesn’t even have to be sport: it could be competitive debating, acting, volunteering with the homeless, performing an instrument, starting a club. Anything that encourages them to stand out, try, fail, and learn resilience.

Change language

I’d argue that we also need to change the language we use to all of our children, and girls in particular. Stop chiding them for being bossy. Stop encouraging them to play it safe, compromise and put others first. Let them make a fuss once in a while. Let them fail, and pick themselves back up and go for it again. Celebrate their resilience and determination. Praise them for their efforts, not the outcome.

It's vital to do this when they're young, because further research shows that things only get harder for women. Two years into the workforce, they encounter yet another ambition cliff, according to research by consultants Bain & Co, published in 2014.

The study asked more than 1,000 men and women in corporate jobs two questions: “Do you aspire to top management?” and “Do you have the confidence you can reach top management?”

“We discovered that 43 per cent of women aspire to top management when they are in the first two years of their position, compared with 34 per cent of men at that stage,” the study’s authors write.

Women are entering the workforce with the wind in their sails, they say. But over time, their “aspiration levels drop more than 60 per cent”, while men’s remain steady. After two years, 34 per cent of men are still aiming for the top, but only 16 per cent of women are.

You’re probably assuming that this is the so-called motherhood penalty at play. Not so, say the authors. The truth is much more nuanced. “Marital and parental status do not significantly differ for women who aspire and women who don’t,” they write.

Another 2017 study, by the Boston Consulting Group, found "the ambition levels of women with children, and women without children, track each other almost exactly over time".

Younger women, in particular, are speaking more openly and proudly about their ambitions than their mothers might have. They are helping each other along, too

So what does happen? Part of the issue is the old adage that you can’t be what you don’t see. When they enter the corporate world, women are discouraged by the dearth of other women above them. They also perceive a lack of support for their ambitions from managers.

Some women tot up the price they’d have to pay to rise to the top, and decide they’d rather not. According to the Bain report, many don’t identify with the people they see as “ideal workers” in their organisation: employees who “are willing to take on high-profile projects on top of day-to-day work and are adept at self-promotion and networking; [who] come in early, leave late and – in between – are ‘always on’”.

Some of it, too, is a hangover from the way women are socialised – they avoid putting themselves forward, even for roles or assignments for which they are well qualified.

But it’s not all bad news. The report found that women flourish at companies that are perceived to embrace many different paths to success and career models.

Elsewhere, despite the ambition gap, more and more women across all fields are breaking through the barriers set by society and by themselves. Change is coming, albeit slowly.

Younger women, in particular, are speaking more openly and proudly about their ambitions than their mothers might have. They are helping each other along too, knowing that success is not a zero-sum game. Your success doesn’t mean my failure.

Here, five successful women talk about what ambition means to them, and how it has ebbed and flowed throughout their lives.

STEFANIE PREISSNER ‘Ambition is one of the worst things you can be struck down with’

“I would describe myself as being ambitious, but it’s something not a lot of women will say about themselves. There’s something about a woman stating very clearly, ‘I have a goal and I am going to get there’, that can be quite confronting for people.

“As women, we’re socialised to be kind and gentle, and to let people in front of us in traffic. The assumption is that drive and focus are not compatible with that.

“In this country, we don’t talk about money, and people self-deprecate all over each other. Your goals are things you write in a diary and never tell anyone. But there’s great power and great vulnerability in saying it aloud. As soon as you name what you want, you’re open to people rolling their eyes and public failure, so it takes great courage to do it.

“What drives me is a terror of being unseen and unheard. I don’t want to die and be forgotten. I remember having a conversation with someone when I was in secondary school, and saying: ‘I have a plan for my life. I want to be heard. People are going to know me. I have stuff to say, and I am afraid of not being heard.’ It was as if I had said I was going to kill everyone, that’s how well it went down.

“I think ambition is one of the worst things you can be struck down with. It has pushed happiness onto the horizon of success for me. I can never stop and enjoy my achievements; I’m always like ‘what’s next?’ My biggest fear is that my greatest success is already on my CV – that would be quite terrifying. Success will look like giving myself a break at some point.”

Stefanie Preissner is a screenwriter, author and actor and the creator of Can't Cope/Won't Cope. She cohosts the RTÉ podcast series Situationships with Rachel Yoder

MAIA DUNPHY ‘Many women suffer from imposter syndrome’

“I feel like a bit of a fraud talking about ambition, because I still feel like someone who is just about getting away with it. Ambition and confidence are so inextricably linked, and the image of the tough, soulless businesswoman is such a tired old trope. It is possible to be ambitious, yet still riddled with self-doubt.

“My personality is not entirely suited to the career I chose, and so I am constantly questioning my abilities. Because my job often involves being in the public eye, that self-doubt is exacerbated. Imagine if thousands of people critiqued your work on a daily basis? I worked behind the camera in television for many years before the opportunity to host an authored documentary arose. Contrary to popular belief, not all people in TV crave front of camera work, but it was a natural extension of my writing work – plus, I knew it had the potential to open more doors.

“Despite most people liking what I did, it’s often difficult not to focus on the one person telling you you’re terrible.

“Freelance work suits my head but not my heart, and I remain in perpetual terror of never working again. This may not be the most positive perspective on ambition, but it’s important to say that many people – especially women – suffer from imposter syndrome despite their abilities. Years of being underpaid, undermined and undervalued in the workplace take their toll.

“Motherhood has both helped and hindered my ambitions. Obviously, I have far less time, but my son has brought a wonderful perspective to my life, simply because he matters more than anything else. So I still have plenty of work ambitions, and self-doubt to spare, but I care far less what other people think. I have also learned that if you want something done well, hire a working mother.”

Maia Dunphy is a TV producer, broadcaster and writer

IRENE QUEALLY ‘Having my children has made me more ambitious’

“I find the word ‘ambition’ off-putting. I’ve never seen myself as competing with anybody. I don’t think it’s a female thing necessarily; I think it’s an Irish thing. We’d be horrified if anyone thought we had notions.

“I suppose I am ambitious, or entrepreneurial – mostly I feel like I’m just doing my thing. I worked in fashion and had my own store, then I went back to college and qualified as a psychotherapist, before I set up Pip & Pear three years ago.

“After my second child was born, I wanted to create guilt-free meals for babies and toddlers that were just like something I’d make at home myself, and I’d be happy and proud to feed my child.

"It's never been about making money or employing 500 people. The mission was to give parents a break, and children a good start. Now, we're in all the major retailers in Ireland, and we're going into three European markets next year. I hate the term 'mumpreneur' – there's a bit of, 'Ah sure, isn't it well for you, with your little hobby'.

“Having my children has made me more ambitious. I’d love to be at home every night and at every school event, but if I’m going to miss out, I want it to be worthwhile. So I have to make it work. And I want them to see what’s possible if you work hard.

“You can’t have it all. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t have great support at home. My husband runs his own business, and he supports me 100 per cent in doing what I do. If I didn’t have him there’s no way I’d have done this.

“The biggest ambition now is to bring the business to a place where I can breathe. With that will come balance. Finding a better balance is the next ambition.”

Irene Queally is the founder of Pip & Pear chilled meals for babies and toddlers

ANNE-MARIE TOMCHAK ‘Being ambitious is about being your own driving force’

“The word ambition has really changed for me. In the past, I would have seen ambition as associated with external validation, through my achievements, my career, promotions, or acknowledgements of a performance as a musician. I used to be all guns blazing in my 20s, feeling like I needed to be in a sprint. It was sometimes a case of misguided ambition. But in a way that’s a charmed attitude – you don’t suffer from imposter syndrome at that age. Now I’m taking it more slowly, and helping others to achieve their ambitions is very satisfying.

“I’m an identical twin, and I think that drove some of my ambitions – I tried working hard as a way of setting myself apart.

“Ambition is a very gendered concept. When a man is ambitious, he’s seen as strong, a good breadwinner. Yet when a woman is ambitious it can be seen as negative: it’s equated [to] not having a maternal instinct, or a duty of care to others. I take issue with it, because I think you can be ambitious and still very kind or caring.

“There’s a difference between being ambitious and being competitive. Being ambitious is about being your own driving force – it’s about having that inner belief and that drive – and that ebbs and flows throughout your life. To have an ambition is a gift. It’s a beautiful thing to have a goal, to reach for something and get it.”

Anne-Marie Tomchak is UK editor-in-chief of Mashable

AINE KERR ‘Anything a man can do, a woman can do while breastfeeding’

"Just over a year ago, I left a rewarding corporate job in New York City to co-found a company in Dublin, knowing that 90 per cent of startups fail, knowing also that I was just weeks pregnant with my first child.

“Then and now, I wanted to be able to tell my daughter that when the public’s trust rapidly declined in the industry I love because of a misinformation war, I tried to play my part by building a new media company built on trust.

“As a teacher turned journalist, editor, tech executive, and entrepreneur, it’s probably fair to say I believe that life only truly begins outside of your comfort zone. For me, that has meant taking on roles that can help bring about fundamental change in the industry I believe to be critical to any functioning democracy: journalism.

“Starting a company and starting a family at the same time pushed me way outside the comfort zone and into my happiest period yet, knowing I’m doing something that truly matters.

“Sure, there have been massive challenges and sacrifices along the way – I’m now of the belief that anything a man can do, a woman can also do while breastfeeding. But I’m convinced that if ever you want something done, ask a busy woman. Yes, we’re unapologetically ambitious, but we’re fundamentally ambitious for our fellow citizens, our families, our friends, and the future generations we’re here to nurture and inspire.

“Ask yourself this question: What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

Aine Kerr is the cofounder and COO of Neva Labs and a Sulzberger Fellow at Columbia University in New York. She has previously worked at Facebook and Storyful and as a journalist