Recently, while on the campaign trail, President Obama noted differences in perception that still exist regarding ambitious men and women. Ambitious men are seen in a positive light, while ambitious women are suspect.
For some reason, the motives of high-achieving women are challenged. Their talents are questioned. Their leadership skills are downplayed. Their success is discounted, attributed to others, or chalked up to luck. Women and their ideas and achievements may be accepted as part of a work team, but when credit is handed out, they all too frequently fade into the background.
This behavior may be a hold-over from earlier times when women who worked were primarily in “support roles” —think nurse supporting doctor, or secretary supporting boss, or wife supporting husband. Or it may still be fear of a power shift for women, not only in the workplace, but in our society.
Women have infiltrated (and excel in) almost all fields and jobs (Catholic priest is one notable exception, as the Pope recently pointed out). Women now serve in combat, fly jumbo jets, develop and manage mega corporations, and serve on the Supreme Court and in the Congress. Women don’t “fall into” positions like these. Instead, they need a vision, a plan, passion, and energy, and underlying it all is ambition—the will and drive to make it happen.
If you are a high-achieving woman or one intent on success, you can probably trace your ambition back to when you were young. Maybe you can remember how important “A’s” were to you in school. You might even recall getting that one B that ruined a perfect report card in ninth grade. You worked hard to get into your college of choice or to secure that good entry level job. You still work hard at all you do. You are still ambitious. What’s wrong with that?
As a woman in the workplace, doing “A” work can have a different, even negative, connotation. It’s not uncommon to hear successful, ambitious women labeled with “A” words. You might assume they would be called aspirational, audacious, ardent, or awesome? You would be wrong. Instead, when referring to a woman, we frequently hear the word ambitious paired with negative words like aggressive, assertive, arrogant, or annoying.
One “A” word that we don’t hear today when describing an ambitious woman is apologetic. Despite some outdated views and old workplace habits, women are no longer apologizing for their ambitions, their achievements, or their successes. And there is nothing wrong with that.