Ambition is Not a Dirty Word

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Have you ever felt the need to tone down how you talk about wanting to win? Or downplay your achievements generally, even feel uncomfortable when talking about your success? Perhaps you feel that being described as ‘an ambitious woman’ is not quite a compliment?

You’re not alone. What a pity so many women feel they can’t own their ambition and shout about their success. In this article, I explore why that might be the case, why that can be a problem for women’s progression (let alone their fulfilment) and have a look at how that might change.

What IS ambition?

Ambition is defined as having or showing a strong desire to succeed. An ambitious goal requires a great deal of skill and effort. Those are good things surely? Yet I find women will often rephrase their ambition as ‘Well I really just want to make a difference.’  That’s legitimate of course, making a difference is really important but many women feel less comfortable with also saying ‘I am ambitious’ out loud. I do hear them say ‘I don’t want to look like an arrogant show-off.’ ‘I don’t want to be one of those clawing her way to the top kind of woman’. So why the reluctance to be seen to be ‘an ambitious woman’?

What’s going on?

Much of our discomfort and reluctance has at its’ heart gender stereotypes that have been millennia in the making. We (or others) may think it is not ‘nice’ as a woman to express our ambition, it could make us less attractive, we risk trading off our femininity. Because we are challenging a stereotype we can be judged if not penalised for that so it fees risky and uncomfortable. That is why ‘an ambitious man’ doesn’t have the same edge to it, it feels like a more natural thing to say, and for men, to be. The same behaviour is not judged in the same way, that is why men don’t have sharp elbows.  Saying ‘I am ambitious’ out loud can feel risky as well because what if we fail? Better to keep that hidden and not tell anyone – just in case…

But the real risk is we smother our ambition with our anxiety about our likeability and with our doubt about our capability. To spend life in the ‘has potential’ box. Click To Tweet

Here is how to embrace your ambition  

Be an approachable, warm, ambitious woman. Yes, that’s it.

We do need to understand the stereotyping going on around us and what stereotyping is operating inside us. But we don’t need to fall prey to it. The only way ‘ambitious woman’ will feel natural is when more women are seen to be doing it, and being it, with ease. And that is you.

Watch out for Ambition Killers

In 2015 Bain & Company asked more than 1,000 men and women in a mix of U.S. companies two questions: “Do you aspire to top management within a large company?” and “Do you have the confidence you can reach top management?” Women with two years or less of work experience slightly led men in ambition but women with more than two years on the job, aspiration and confidence plummeted 60%. This was not connected to marriage and motherhood status. Men experienced only a 10% dip in confidence.

Men and women start off with the same aspirations for their professional lives. In the 2016 BCG research Decoding Global Talent of over 200,000 men and women in 189 countries, we see that women start their careers with as much ambition as men but it drops off quickly.

Again having children does not make women less ambitious, their experience of their organisation does.

% of respondents aged 30-40 seeking promotion to a higher leadership position




Companies making the LEAST progress                                   Companies making the MOST progress 

               on gender diversity                                                                              on  gender diversity


Women’s ambitions vary by company, not by family status. The great news is that this research shows us that in organisations that are working on gender diversity both men and women increase their desire for advancement – women’s advancement does NOT come at the expense of men.

Ambition is not a fixed attribute it is nurtured and it is killed off, by organisations, by others and by ourselves. Click To Tweet

We need to be aware of that and intentional with giving voice to our ambitions and encouraging other ambitious women to do the same. Be aware of how you might be shutting it down unconsciously in yourself and in the women around you. Nurture it in yourself through being with your trusted tribe, talking about your ambitions and being the role model of an ambitious woman to encourage others.

If it doesn’t feel ‘natural’ simply acknowledge that the discomfort is about taking the edge off an age-old stereotype that serves neither you nor your organisation well. Your ambition is important to nurture, it is important for you and for the world to have it fully realised. So go for it!

You might be interested in my podcast episode with founder of Engaging Minds Sally Bibb on how to use our strengths to fuel our success. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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