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Ambition and the "B" Word

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We've heard it a million times: "She's tough." "She's pushy." "She's a bitch."

And to whom are these lovely comments usually directed? Invariably, toward women (not men!) in positions of power, or women seeking positions of power, or women who aren't content with the status quo. Women who assert themselves and aren't afraid to show their ambition.

In other words: Women just like me. And you.

Which begs the question: Can a woman be ambitious -- in charge, driven, goal-oriented, confident, passionate -- without being labeled a bitch?

In theory: Of course! In practice: Probably not any time soon. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg noted in her much-lauded Barnard commencement speech, women may have come a long way, but we really haven't progressed as much as we could have. In 1981, for example, half of the college graduates in the US were female. Thirty years later you'd think women would be at the helm of our industries, but we're not. In sum: Only nine out of 190 heads of state, globally, are women. Women hold only 13 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide. Fifteen percent of top Corporate America jobs belong to the XX set. Same for full professorships (24 percent).

The reasons why are manifold, including both internal and external factors. Plenty of women don't WANT to rise to the top, choosing instead to stay home and raise kids, or work part-time. And that's perfectly fine.

What's not fine are the studies that found that college-educated women are not nearly as ambitious as their college-educated male counterparts. I don't think it's because women are inherently less driven; I think it's because those who ARE ambitious are often afraid of the "B" word pointed at them (and I'm not talking 'beautiful').

No one likes to be called names, of course. But the truth is that until attitudes change, gender inequity shifts and more women are in leadership roles, women are going to have to develop some pretty thick skin. We're going to have to believe in ourselves, and each other, and our missions, and our ability to lead. Clearly, this is a heck of a lot easier said than done, especially since women really, really want to be liked. As Sandberg pointed out, "...as men get more successful and powerful, both men and women like them better. As women get more powerful and successful, everyone, including women, likes them less."

I know just what she means. Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of businesswomen at a conference in in Connecticut. About ten out of the 100 women there were at a million dollars or more in revenue. One of the women mentioned aloud that she wanted to grow her company to $10 million, and we discussed what she would need to do to reach that goal. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said "I hate her! Why isn't $1 million enough for her?" She went on to say that if she, herself, worked toward such a goal, her children would end up drug addicts. I kid you not! It's not the first and won't be the last time I'll hear women jump from the issue of their own ambition leading to dire situations for their children.

Of course, men need to get over their preconceived notions about women, too. Recently, I heard a young woman on Wall Street talk about her experiences in the military. She had served during the first Iraq War and had been through officer training. On one of her first assignments was put in charge of 200 soldiers, almost all of them men. The first question she was asked after she was introduced? "Ma'am, how far away from you do I have to be to take a piss?"

Her response: "Far enough away so you don't get me wet."

Yeah!

That's precisely the kind of approach I recommend when people call you a bitch, or question your authority or your ambition. Respond with confidence and authority, and don't dwell on the names they call you. Embrace your ambition. Nurture it. And don't let some five-, six- or seven-letter words deter you from your agenda.

That's exactly what women like Leah Brown, Theresa Alfaro Daytner, Sandi Webster, Rupila Sethi, and Julie Goldman -- women who have made their own million dollar success stories with support of our Make Mine a Million $ Business program -- have been doing for years. I'm so proud that I will be standing with them on the bell podium of the New York Stock Exchange this Friday, September 2, as Count Me In rings in the Opening Bell. These women have all gone for their goals, ignored the name-calling, and show no signs of stopping any time soon.

My word for them? Beautiful.