Is ambition a dirty word?

Are our conflicted attitudes about ambition are holding us back? After all, we have more opportunities to succeed than ever before, yet women in top jobs are still in the minority. Perhaps it's time to reframe what success really means


Is ambition a dirty word?

Two female friends of mine were discussing a new woman who had joined their department at work recently. ‘You know the type,’ said one. ‘No sense of humour. Totally driven. Never shows her emotions.’ The other friend chimed in eagerly. ‘Yes, I wouldn’t trust her. She’s clearly very ambitious.’ Isn’t it strange how the very word ‘ambition’ still takes on a negative connotation when applied to women? While any number of shouty, pushy men – Alan Sugar, Boris Johnson, Russell Brand, Jeremy Paxman – are celebrated for their drive to succeed, women at the same level are viewed, at best, with suspicion – at worst, with hostility. The word has perhaps never recovered from the 1980s, the era of Alexis Colby, Working Girl, Julie Burchill’s blockbuster novel Ambition and Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour.

In the annals of psychological research, ambition has been largely overlooked. It’s not regarded as a trait in its own right, and is barely mentioned in terms of gender difference. The Big Five personality traits only look at ambition as a byproduct of conscientiousness, and don’t connect it to being, say, neurotic, or an extrovert or an introvert. ‘I don’t think men are necessarily more driven than women; I see plenty of ambitious women,’ says psychologist Dirk Flowers, who runs a City practice. ‘Ambition is complex. It’s not a trait, it’s a driver that can motivate us in positive or negative ways. It’s about many things – survival, risk-taking, creative urges, financial and social status, jealousy, fear of rejection, competitiveness and the need to win. It’s what it motivates you to do that is key.’

New York-based psychiatrist Anna Fels suggests that for many women, the very concept has become stigmatised and misunderstood. She wrote a controversial paper, ‘Do Women Lack Ambition?’, for the Harvard Business Review. ‘It emerged that there needs to be greater clarity around what ambition is,’ she says. ‘In the past, women have confused it with narcissism, with people who simply want to promote themselves at any cost. But really, what ambition is about is getting appropriate recognition for your skills.

There is no evidence to suggest that the desire to acquire skills or achieve recognition is less in women than men. In fact, achieving recognition is an important emotional need.’ Fels interviewed dozens of women for her research, later published in book form. ‘None of them would admit to being ambitious, associating the term with the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Instead, the constant refrain was, “It’s not about me, it’s the work”, or, “I hate to promote myself”. Men simply do not talk this way.’ In the interests of research, I decided to canvass opinions among female friends and colleagues. ‘Would you describe yourself as ambitious?’ ‘No,’ says Hannah, 35, who runs her own business. ‘I’ve never been that type of woman.’ But you run a business? ‘Yes, but I choose to work for myself so that I can work flexible hours and spend time with my son.’ Fiona,  40, meanwhile, replies that, ‘Yes, I’m definitely ambitious. I want my boss’s job, I want to get paid more, I want people to value my work.’ She phoned back an hour later. ‘But you’re not going to print my name, are you?’

Women versus women

Given how long we’ve had equal opportunities at work, can it really be possible that ambition is something women aren’t comfortable with owning? Executive mentor Peninah Thomson has worked for many FTSE 100 companies and is not surprised. ‘Research indicates women’s perception of their value and certainty about their future prospects are still relatively low,’ she says. ‘Boardroom behaviour inadvertently squeezes female voices out – we are generally more comfortable talking about teamwork. One woman I was coaching actually said to me, “I don’t want to act like I’m the great ‘I Am’. If that’s what I’ve got to do to get ahead, I don’t want to go there.” Men, on the other hand, find it a whole lot easier to use the “I” word than women do.’

But if women are reticent at work, it cannot be said that they lack competitive spirit in most other areas of life. Where any group of women is gathered, from a girls’ night out to the school gate, sooner or later you will witness Olympic levels of rivalry. Women tend to scrutinise the minutiae of how other women are performing – everything from who owns which handbag, to who’s lost weight or had Botox, to whose house has increased in value, in a way that men find baffling. And that’s not to mention competing to have the most gifted, intelligent, musical children.

‘Men tend to focus on a single goal, such as earning money, or winning a promotion, whereas women focus on a greater variety of goals, at work, at home, socially and for their children,’ says Flowers. So why do so many of us redirect our ambition into non-work-related spheres? ‘Girls and women more openly seek and compete for affirmation when they are with other women, for example, in sports or in all-girl academic settings,’ says Fels. It’s a theory that explains why, on film and in TV series, some of the best-known power-hungry women work in women’s magazines, hairdressing and the fashion industry. ‘Women have no difficulty aggressively pursuing roles that complement, rather than compete with, males – such as trying out for a female acting part, a modelling career or a singing group. But they change their behaviours when it comes to competing directly with men.’ This is a telling observation, given that young girls now regularly claim their ambition is to be an actress, singer or TV star, in place of previous generations’ aspirations, where teacher, nurse and vet were the preferred options.

Success without effort

Dean Simonton, professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, believes there’s another reason young women – and men – are attracted to being famous: reality TV has created a climate where people no longer associate ambition with hard graft. ‘It was [hair stylist] Vidal Sassoon who said, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary,”’ says Simonton. ‘But between the lottery and reality TV, this seems no longer true. People are more often than not asking, “Why shouldn’t I take the shortcut?”’

He points out that it’s not only affecting the world of celebrity culture. ‘Look at politics in the USA, and consider how someone like Sarah Palin could seriously have considered running for President of the United States after the most minimal experience in anything relevant – mayor of a small town and a drop-out governorship,’ he says. Simonton also observes that the current climate of effortless success causes some people to lose touch with reality. ‘They end up living in a Walter Mitty world of pure fantasy. And if you have too much ambition, or it’s misdirected, it can be daunting when you finally do realise what must be done to accomplish your goals. So you might end up giving up, lowering your aspirations or cheating. I have heard some sad stories around this issue, plenty from women.’

It’s not just glass ceilings

But it can’t purely be down to a conflicted relationship with their own ambition that in the UK’s 100 leading firms, just 135 board-level positions – out of a total of 1,076 – are filled by women. There are other factors at play. As well as the much touted ‘glass ceiling’, we’re now apparently dealing with ‘sticky floors’, ‘labyrinths’ (management structures where women are destined to get lost), and, most devious of all, ‘glass cliffs’. The latter term was coined by the University of Exeter to describe the practice of promoting women to ‘dangerous’ jobs that would leave them exposed to failure and, ultimately, a gilt-edged P45. Would being more openly ambitious really be enough to help us overcome entrenched male attitudes? ‘I think being more aware of how ambition might be holding us back, for example the way in which it influences our choice of career, would be helpful,’ says Fels. ‘Even those women who reach the top tend still to favour jobs with a care-giving aspect, which lets them talk about their work without appearing self-serving. That’s why so many women go for charities, universities, even politics – they can focus on helping others.

Law and finance don’t allow you to do that.’ There are, however, signs that change is in the air, thanks to a surprising benefactor – the recession. ‘We know ambitious people exist in all societies, even the very poorest,’ says Edward Lowe, professor of anthropology at Soka University of America. ‘But when prestigious goals become harder to attain, this can really shake things up. There is greater tension between the ambitious individual and the collective community – or employer. What’s happening now in corporate life is that ambitious CEOs who’ve reached the top can only hold on to their jobs if they get all of the board on their side. The old model of the ruthless, self-interested individual is changing in favour of a more collective, collaborative approach, and that favours women.’

Therapist Jacqui Marson agrees that things are changing. ‘Women in their thirties and younger have a different attitude from previous generations – they are much more upfront about talking about ambition, it’s less emotionally loaded than it was previously,’ she says. Marson believes there’s more scope now for us to reframe what ambition means. ‘Ambition doesn’t need to be about money, power and status alone – it’s not either/or,’ she says. ‘You can have those ambitions and still have the ambition to be contented, to be peaceful, to have balanced time with your family and, above all, have the ambition to have a happy life.’