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Leah Kashar Headshot

'Ambitious' Is Not a Dirty Word

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Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, said, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" She is talking about the problem women face today with the glass ceiling. Women can never reach the top in business, and her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, is her argument as to why women are not advancing in the business world and what they can do to change that.

Arguably, one of the hardest parts of being a woman in today's society is the stigma associated with female ambition. Girls are constantly told to reach for the stars, yet one company, Snurk, made the news when they designed bedding for both girls and boys, each depicting their "dreams," for the "little dreamers." The girl's bedding was a princess, the boy's was an astronaut. One could make the argument that little girls like princesses and little boys like astronauts, and the little girl could always just buy the astronaut bedding instead, but it's the principle that is holding girls back.

In the advertisement for the bedding, the girl is assigned to the princess bedding, and the boy is assigned to the astronaut bedding. As one commenter on Pinterest said, "The boy is being trained to be a successful astronaut while the girl is being trained to be a princess, forever stuck in an infantile cycle." I'll admit, as a little girl, I was very much a fairy princess. I don't think I ever went a day without waving a wand around and putting a plastic tiara on my head. I still love the color pink and anything sparkly immediately draws my attention. On the flip side, when my friends have to use one or two words to describe me, many would say I am "driven" or "ambitious." These words are not normally associated with femininity, and I am determined to change that.

So, why can't a woman be both ambitious and feminine? The answer to this question is complicated, but one of the answers lies in Betty Fridan's The Feminine Mystique. She discusses "the problem with no name," from the 1950s, which arose when women were getting physical reactions, such as rashes, from feeling unfulfilled in their lives. They were stuck in their houses, cooking, cleaning and looking after the children. Women would never even have considered a career beyond being a teacher or secretary. Thankfully, today, women are going to college (in fact, they are the majority of college graduates!), and getting jobs in the field of their choice. Once working, however, they often hit that glass ceiling that does not allow them to get the higher level jobs they work for or deserve.

Sandberg's argument is that women, when offered a promotion, will often say that they do not think they are qualified or are underprepared, while a man in the same position would take the job in a heartbeat. This obviously depends on the person, but her point has truth to it. Women are often less forward about getting what they want. Why is this? Well, it could simply be in the nature of women as some believe, but more likely, it is because women have been conditioned to believe that it is not their place to advance themselves in their career. This is not so true to today, where women are becoming more and more ambitious and ready to take on new challenges. This is because of new-age feminism, where women are no longer fighting for their rights in the law, but for equality. The newest problem is the stigma associated with female ambition.

Girls are often told to avoid calling themselves or other girls ambitious because it gives off a "bad vibe" or it sounds aggressive. Stereotypically, girls are not supposed to be associated with the words "ambitious" or "aggressive." Going all the way back to colonial times, girls were even named after traits they were supposed to have, such as "Silence" or "Prudence." Today, women in the workforce often hit the "glass ceiling," meaning that they can only get so high up in their careers before their progress is halted. So, what causes this halt in professional progress?

The overarching reason is the aforementioned stigma that girls face both internally and externally. Bosses, colleagues and peers all expect girls to be less ambitious than their male counterparts, simply because they are women. Although women are protected from earning less than a man for doing the same job, women are often not promoted because they either limit themselves or are limited by their bosses. Women may not see themselves as qualified to lead. Because young women often require maternity leave, they are often passed over for a job, but given a different reason for it.

In a recent Philippines ad for Pantene shampoo, women and men are portrayed doing the same activities, while words in the background form to what they are perceived as. While a man is "boss," a woman is "bossy." This ad was pro women's equality, and was meant to display the double standard. It did so successfully. Furthermore, in a recent New York Times article, "You're Cute and You're Fired," it is revealed that men often fire the women who work for them because they see their looks as a distraction. This article raises the idea that attractive women are not taken as seriously in the workforce. The idea of a "dumb blonde" or that a woman cannot be attractive and smart is one that still exists today.

Thankfully, times are starting to change. Toys such as Goldieblox are now being sold in toy stores. Goldieblox are spatial learning toys made for girls. Similarly to Legos, they teach spatial awareness and pave the way to a better understanding of science and math, but do it in a feminine way. See? Girls can be feminine and good at math.

There is no such thing as the weaker sex. Everyone is different and needs to embrace her strengths. Sexism is still existent, but is hopefully on its way out. In order to abolish sexism, however, a change has to happen. People must stop teaching their daughters that they can only be princesses. If a girl wants to be a princess she totally can be (I sure want to be!), but they must be taught that they can do anything they want to do also. That is where you come in. Don't be afraid to go after your dream and don't be afraid to be ambitious and say it out loud. Feminist is not a dirty word, and neither is ambitious. Let this start in high school. Take the advanced math classes, apply to the Ivy League school, write a book or do what works for you. Take ownership of your life.

Together, we can change the idea that girls cannot have it all. You can and you will.

So, what will you do because you aren't afraid?

The piece first appeared on Smart Girl's Loop