December 27, 2006
It has been said that "the surest way to keep a man in prison is not to let him know he's there." And the surest way to keep a woman from embracing her pure career ambition is to make her believe she's already done it.
Don't believe it.
Heading into 2007, we women are not advancing in our careers the way we should. We're not getting the fulfillment we desire or making the money we deserve. And this time it's not men who are holding us back. This time, sisters, we're doing it to ourselves, because ambition--for us--is still a dirty word.
Don't believe me? Look at yourself in the mirror. Now say these words: "I am successful." It feels good, doesn't it? It makes you smile a little. Now say these words: "I am ambitious." How does that feel? Did you cringe? Did you say it quietly, afraid someone would hear you?
Let's face it, there's just one word that our culture bestows on that supremely ambitious woman who unrepentantly values a career: bitch. Do you unconsciously buy into our prevailing cultural paradigm: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitches? If so, you're not alone.
As founder of the Women's Business Alliance, and as a business psychologist, I've coached thousands of women at every level--from those just starting out to the most powerful executives and entrepreneurs. I began to detect a striking pattern: even self-professed successful women were hitting walls, unable to achieve the next level in their professional lives--and they didn't know why. Certainly they were well aware of the famed glass ceiling, lack of support for those who choose to juggle work and family. However, they had no idea that the greatest factor holding them back was a barrier they themselves had created and internalized.
Seven years ago, I began a systematic investigation of women's attitudes toward ambition. For my new book, amBITCHous: (def.) a woman who 1. makes more money 2. has more power 3. gets the recognition she deserves 4. has the determination to go after her dreams and can do it with integrity, I interviewed more than five hundred women from every corner of the country and between the ages of nineteen and sixty-five.
These were all women who regarded themselves as high-achieving. Many were already quite accomplished. Others were rookies with brand-new, promising careers in front of them. I asked these women how they saw themselves, how they visualized an ambitious woman, and what held them back from achieving even greater success and fulfillment.
I made a fascinating discovery. High-achieving women all harbor the same dirty little secret: we all struggle with socially sanctioned failure to embrace our ambition. We all have the same pernicious audio loop playing between our ears:
Will being as ambitious as I dream of being make me less of a woman? Can I? Should I? Dare I? Have I gone too far? Will it cost me my personal life? Will I make enemies? Will it make those I care about suffer? Is it impossible to be ambitious and happy? Am I charging too much? Am I giving my employer or my clients their money's worth? Is it wrong to care as much about making money as I do about making a meaningful contribution and being fulfilled at work? Will I lose an opportunity if I ask for more money? Who do I think I am calling myself an expert? Do I really know what I'm doing or am I in over my head? Does sticking up for myself and taking credit mean I'm greedy, arrogant and that I'm being unfair to people I work with? Am I deserving of recognition and power? Am I worthy of going after my biggest, most precious career dreams?
Each woman possesses the same fear: if she goes after her dream, she'll be seen--or she'll regard herself--as selfish, bitchy, a bad wife, or a bad mother. But it's exactly this fear of ambition that has forced women to leave the best part of themselves--their dreams, their great talents--by the roadside, rendering them half of what they should be in every area of life.
Ambition isn't a dirty word, but as far as many women are concerned, it might as well be. It doesn't matter where we grew up, went to school, or go to work. It's the same whether we're in our twenties and new to our careers, or in our fifties and sixties and among the most highly-regarded professionals in our industries. Today, the greatest barrier to earning more money, getting the power and recognition we deserve, and feeling entitled to stay the course comes from inside of ourselves. We agonize over whether or not we deserve to be ambitious--and about what it will cost us.
This is emphatically not a game of semantics. The women I've surveyed don't simply prefer the word successful to ambitious. They don't mind being regarded as successful, but they're afraid of being called ambitious.
"I still think that girls are encouraged to be nice and to be liked, and to be about the team and everybody else," says Mary Lou Quinlan, founder and CEO of Just Ask a Woman, "To say you're ambitious means you want to rise above everybody else or be different. I don't think we cheer on ambition enough among women....I don't know how many people cheered Carly Fiorina's ambition. Or Andrea Jung's...It's almost like the word is 'am-bitchin'."
"Catherine," forty-one, an M.D., researcher, and associate clinical professor, echoes her concern: "I think we should throw out the word ambition, because I don't like that word. I like the word aspiration, which means 'a desire with focus.'...Or the word passion. I prefer synonyms rather than the word ambition."
Consider what "Vera," fifty-seven, and a longtime high-seven-figure earner, famously referred to as a rock star and legend in her corporate industry, said to me:
"I want to change the world. True, I couldn't live without my work, without being inspired every day. I'm successful--things have just sort of fallen into place in my career. But no, I'm not ambitious--I want to effect positive change in the world, yet my family is very important to me."
Women have been told not to value their ambition. Instead, we're spoon-fed a culturally acceptable, watered-down definition of success; you're successful if you master the work/life equation, achieve a "life in balance." We're told that when we master this juggling act, we're "succeeding on our own terms."
Few of us challenge the notion that the accepted definition of success might actually be holding women back because it is couched in such a positive way: "You don't have to be unabashedly ambitious. You're above all that. You're sophisticated enough to realize that ambition isn't as important as getting the life-balance equation right." Or, "You don't have to be ambitious the way a man is. You've come around to realize that success is a different, and better, goal than ambition. You can win with empathy, cooperation and being generous. You don't have to give up being a woman to get ahead."
I count it as a Pyrrhic victory that our modern, progressive culture is no longer pushing the idea that women cannot have it all. The message that books and popular media are transmitting is: We can have it all--so long as we're willing to redefine what "it" is. Now it's not the killer job and the great home life; it's balancing the two, which, practically speaking, means less of each: women should be just thrilled to have a not-ideal job and a not-ideal life as long as they feel the two are balanced.
How can we take seriously the necessary soul-searching required to discover what we were meant to do professionally when we never explicitly discuss our pure, unadulterated ambition? When we're pacified with a playbook that praises our "softer side" instead of arming us with hardball techniques? When there's more breathless coverage of Madonna's adoption or alleged marital woes than her phenomenal success as a businesswoman? When we're told we haven't truly succeeded until we're always equally happy at home and at work?
My goal is to address the great hunger on the part of high-aiming women for advice that speaks to our discontent--and to our ambition to be freely ambitious. I have a new message and mission: to convince women that ambition is not a four-letter word. Ambition is the best of who you are. You owe it to yourself and the world to make the contribution you were born to make.
Here's my challenge to you: Go down just as hard for your ambition as you do for any other primary priority in your life, be it lover, friend, child, community; don't sacrifice your ambition for any reason.
Wouldn't it be great if you could reclaim and redefine ambition in its most gloriously positive sense? Wouldn't it be inspiring if you could acknowledge straight up, to yourself and to others, that you have big, wild, and precious professional goals? That you crave excellence? Wouldn't it feel great to challenge yourself fiercely?
Wouldn't it be great if you believed that you could be audaciously ambitious and happy at the same time? Wouldn't it feel great to trust that you could achieve your career goals without compromising your personal life, but rather enhancing it? Wouldn't it be so freeing to acknowledge, in your core, that your ambitious goals are sacrosanct, just as inviolable as other nonnegotiable priorities in your life?
Wouldn't it be such a relief to know deep down that you are great at what you do? Wouldn't you feel fabulous if you could bitch-slap that doubting voice in your head that accuses you of not having earned your spot at the grown-ups' table, of not deserving your share of the power, the recognition, the credit--and the money?
Wouldn't it be great to be amBITCHous?
My vision is that we make a collective shift in thinking where we all understand that our right career path, our true professional calling--our ambitchous desire to love our work--is as much a part of the "who I am" equation as feeling that we are good mothers, loyal wives, worthy colleagues. And that we do so with an uncompromising, unyielding belief in our right and ability and obligation to do so.
Deborah Saweuyer-Parks thinks this way. She is founder, president, and CEO of Homestead Capital, a huge powerhouse now in ten western states created to address the lack of affordable housing. Deborah thrives on her ambition--and aggressively counsels women who work for her to do the same:
"I believe opportunity is limitless. I am very ambitious. And yes I'm incredibly passionate about my work, but I'm equally passionate about my family, I'm equally passionate about my friends. I think you just have to manage your life so that you can be a full recipient of all of it."
In 2007, let's reclaim ambition as a virtue. Embracing a virtuous definition of winning as an ambitchous woman who believes that the world deserves to hear from her means following three golden rules:
1. You must love your work.
You must be willing to aggressively pursue the professional work you were meant to do and to strive for any career opportunities that inspire you.
2. You must regard your deepest career aspirations as unconditionally sacrosanct.
The real way to have a great life is to see your career ambition as a part of your value system to which you must give equal attention, along with other non-negotiable priorities in your life, including your partner, your kids, your friends.
3. You must feel entitled to earn your worth.
You must be able to charge your full marketplace value without self-reproach, without leaving money on the table, and without feeling like an impostor because you make as much as--or more than--a man.
Adopt a New Mindset: Go Down Hard For Your Ambition
If you don't go down hard for your ambition, you're letting the best part of you, the part that the world deserves to have you contribute, rot in a basement. In 2007, let's get her out.
"I got really serious about deciding what does make me feel alive. What makes me feel like I can face myself every morning? And to me that was living my dream. You know everybody has them. I decided it's all that mattered in the world and that I'd rather die than not live my dream--it just wasn't worth it to be alive otherwise. And this [her singing career] came along and since then I've had no problem getting up working twenty hour days and touring forty cities every thirty days because I feel a lot less alone and I also feel like I get to help other people too, and that gives me great fulfillment." -Jewel, recording artist, interviewed by Sarah McLachlan.
Protect your passion. As the amBITCHous woman you are entitled to be, I encourage you to answer for yourself, every day, a question posed in Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":