A is For Ambition: How and Why Women Leaders Can Claim It Without Apology

Being ambitious as a woman is sometimes met with derision. Take back the A word.Being happy is not the sole, top professional goal for me, nor for many women leaders I know. It’s a welcome and worthwhile byproduct of a productive, meaningful life, not the whole point.The latest comments from  Saatchi & Saatchi’s former executive chairman, Kevin Roberts, stress another point of view: women’s ambition is absent, or at most, headed in the wrong direction.“Their ambition is not a vertical ambition, it’s this intrinsic, circular ambition to be happy,” Roberts said, according to The Guardian. That was before he announced he was leaving the company permanently, after he was placed on disciplinary leave for his gendered comments.We are not talking about ambition as the no-apologies ruthlessness that has tended to fill the archives of working woman movies.  In the classics from “9 to 5” in the 80s, to Nicole Kidman’s weathergirl on steroids in 1995’s  “To Die For” through “Legally Blonde,” and up to “Devil Wears Prada” 10 years ago, we watched androids of women who scheme or slide their way up the ladder, making ambition a brand of dysfunction.[bctt tweet=“Ambition is a bad thing supposedly when applied to women leaders.”]Ambition is a bad thing supposedly when applied to women leaders, according to The Telelgraph. “‘Ambitious’ – applied to a woman, it’s usually intended as a criticism, but men are rarely chided for wanting to advance themselves.”Why does “ambitious” mean something different for women?According to The Guardian: “The original meaning (‘having a strong desire for success or achievement’) is still applied to men as a positive trait. In a working woman? It’s a dirty word. Cara Delevingne has complained that she’s encountered criticism for being ambitious. Even Madonna has said she felt ‘being openly ambitious [is] frowned open’ in England.And just this past week, a woman’s ambition was again in the news in the UK.“Former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, referred to Liz Truss – the new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor – as ‘an ambitious, middle-ranking cabinet minister whose main ambition is to go further up the greasy pole.’ Truss hit back, calling the comments ‘misogynistic’.“In reaction to this, Victoria Lambert in the  Telegraph asks women leaders if they really do aspire to the top, and if  they get there, will they be happy?“Baroness McGregor Smith, CEO of outsourcing experts Mitie Group PLC and the only Asian female chief executive of a FTSE 250 company, said: ‘There are still barriers to achievement, otherwise we would have equal representation at the top of business and private and public sectors. “Women do not lack the same ambition as men. If they want to do well, they shouldn’t be held back. But the natural path to the top is not there yet.”But why is our view of women leaders with goals frowned upon, represented in our culture as a cartoonish eye-scratching brawl to the top? It is not as if the idea of ambitious women is a new concept.[bctt tweet=“It is not as if the idea of ambitious women is a new concept.”]Yes, there’s Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” and Annalise Keating, Bonnie Winterbottom and every female law student on “How To Get Away With Murder.” Each woman has ambition, but many times, at the price of humanity. And before each of these women, there was Mildred Pierce, and after that, Alexis Carrington Colby in “Dynasty.”In real life, just how as a woman in the workplace with her eyes on bigger prizes, do you square the role of ambition in your life?How can you move forward without apology?In a study to be released in 2018 by Laura Frankel in the political science department at Duke University, “The Politics of Gender Socialization,” she examines one possible reason why women do or do not have political ambition.Frankel “investigates whether young, single, and heterosexual women’s desire for male attention and fear of being perceived as unattractive or ‘too ambitious’ present obstacles to running for office. The results of these experiments suggest that social expectations about gender, attraction and sexuality, and political office-holding may contribute to women’s reticence to pursue political leadership.”While many of us certainly will recoil at that hypothesis, it opens a discussion about the perception of the possibility for women to have ambition and to temper it at will, for whatever reason. Legitimate or not.Sexuality is also a factor in the new film, “Equity,” dealing with women, Wall Street and ambition. Emma Johnson writes in Forbes about the main character, Naomi.“Naomi is that woman: In her 50s, having foregone any notion of having it all, lives alone with her beta fish (get it? Alpha woman, beta fish?) in her stark Manhattan apartment, apparently having sacrificed pretty much everything for her career. She is attractive, fit (boxing is her workout of choice), but feminine charm is not part of Naomi’s persona.” Johnson writes.“When challenging her male (natch) boss about why she is repeatedly passed over for the most senior promotions, Naomi is told that she can ‘rub people the wrong way,’ alluding to the “sharp elbows” double-standard women report hold them back: When being as tough as any guy in the office, they are punished for not being nice enough.”The moral of the movie, apparently, is that ambition is ok, but that sexuality erodes your drive to get ahead.But whose ambition is it anyway?Like most things, most women experience ambition in their own way.  Cheryl Yanek wrote in Catalyst last year that even when you acknowledge that women leaders have ambition, we must also tip our hats to the fact that not every woman has the same brand of ambition.Yanek writes: “We’ve all seen the endless articles about what’s wrong with women, whether it’s lost confidence, purported lack of ambition, or something else (choose your own character flaw!), but I know plenty of women like me who have consciously said, ‘I don’t want to be the CEO—and that doesn’t mean I’m not ambitious.’ Running a company is extremely time-consuming, and it’s not what everybody wants—nor does everyone possess the particular set of talents required. Some people need and want more free time than others, whether they are spending it on creative outlets, athletics, family, or any number of other personal pursuits.”Yanek adds, “Saying that ambition comes in one size only—or that it means a burning desire to reach the very top of your company—is limiting. Not everyone can be on the fast-track to be CEO.”There may be mixed messages in our culture about women’s ambition, but at Harvard’s Innovation Lab, half of the ideas accepted for development are from women participants, according to Susan Price in Forbes.Price writes, “’We don’t take gender into consideration,’ says Jodi Goldstein, the i-lab’s Managing Director. ‘We want to support great companies and it has ended up that about half had women founders. It was organic.’”According to Price, “The number is also interesting in light of new research from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor that men between the ages of 18 and 24 are twice as likely to start a new business than women of the same age. And while three of five new female entrepreneurs started consumer businesses compared to two in five for men, according to the GEM, Goldstein says the i-lab ventures are equally distributed across industries, with women launching as many in tech or health as fashion and consumer.”Are they ambitious, lucky, innovative or all of the above?Lindsay Pattison, global CEO of Maxus, writes in Fortune, that she was ambitious early in her life. And that she went for it.“There is absolutely no reason why women, who make up 47 percent of the workforce in the United States, cannot hold the equivalent number of top executive roles (as opposed to the current, dismal 14 percent). From the moment I realized I wanted my name to be followed by the title ‘CEO,’ I made a concrete list of steps that would get me there and today I encourage every woman with similar aspirations, regardless of the industry, to draw from these on her journey up the corporate ladder.”Others concur.  In The Telegraph, Lambert quotes Cindy Gallop, founder of the IfWeRanTheWorld web platform designed to turn good intentions into action. “Never doubt women burn with passion and ambition as much as men. We want to be leaders and use our vision to shape the industry of the future. And we want to make money too.”