What do you want to be when you grow up? An Olympian. A rock star. The President of the United States.
Children have a way of articulating their ambitions with unapologetic excitement and limitless possibility. This ability to imagine a life that reflects our talent and potential feels like a collective human experience — until it doesn’t.
Talking to my thirty-something girlfriends about their ambitions, ambivalence takes the place of excitement. Discomfort replaces possibility. According to a 2020 survey, just 31 percent of women say they are proud to call themselves ambitious, though more than half of survey respondents identify as ambitious personally.
In other words, most women are ambitious, but they don’t want to be seen that way.
If you identify as a woman or nonbinary person, and your ambition makes you uncomfortable, it’s because you’ve been taught that it should. Through every interaction with a coworker who labeled you unlikable when you took on a position of leadership. Through every experience with a boss who denied you a promotion or questioned your commitment to your work for “daring” to negotiate a raise. Through every time you heard the word “ambitious” weaponized against prominent women in an attempt to disqualify them from holding power. (See: President Biden’s financial backers discouraging him from choosing then Senator Kamala Harris as a running mate because she was ‘too ambitious’)
The tenuous relationship women have with their ambition is not inherent, it is learned.
While ambition in boys and men is praised and nurtured into power, profit, and prestige, ambition in girls and women is still too often seen as unattractive and undesirable, and this can carry steep personal, professional and social penalties.
Women in leadership positions are more likely to be disliked and disrespected by peers.
Recruiters avoid working with high-achieving women while pursuing high achieving men.
Confident, ambitious women are more likely to be perceived as less likable and less hirable.
These gendered ambition penalties compound when they intersect with racism, classism, ageism, homophobia and other forms of bias and discrimination — perpetuating inequities like pay gaps, wealth gaps and leadership gaps.
In short, the problem isn’t ambitious women, it’s what our culture does to ambitious women.
So where does that leave us and our relationship to our own ambitions?
That’s what we’ll be digging into each week at Too Ambitious: the ambivalence, the discomfort, even the denial of our own ambition. Why we feel it and how it can keep us from advancing in our careers in the way we should. How it can keep us from making the money we deserve or getting the fulfillment we want. And what needs to happen for more women — across race, class and identity — to feel entitled to their ambitions and supported in the pursuit of them.
(While much of the existing research on ambition only describes presumably cisgender men and women, these concepts are applicable to all women and nonbinary people, and I want you to know you're welcome here regardless of identity.)
A little about me: I’m an author and journalist, and I’ve been writing about money and work for years. As a '90s kid, I grew up in the era of girl power — when the broad narrative regarding young girls was to raise a generation of strong women who would feel entitled to their ambition. Yet as I’ve achieved new heights in my own career, and continued to set ambitious goals for myself, it began to feel like the fact that my life was centered on my ambition had become unacceptable and unpalatable to others. Casual conversations became oriented mostly around marriage and children, and I began to see signals of total disinterest in anything I do or care about professionally. I admit I wondered if the problem was me — but when I started to share my feelings about this in essays and on social media, so many women reached out to say I’d articulated something they had experienced but hadn’t had the language to describe.
Many of us seem to feel a disconnect between what we value in ourselves and what other people value about us. And that’s whether we’re married, single, parenting, or happily child-free.
I hope Too Ambitious creates space for personal ambitions to exist in tandem with everything else that’s expected of women. I want to help you envision a future in which you can enjoy what’s important to you without burning yourself out trying to achieve it. And I want you to feel seen and valued for all that you value in yourself.
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Thanks to all who've shared already.
P.S. You're not too ambitious.