Why is ambition a dirty word

by Elise Stevens | Futureproof Your Career Podcast

This year, Kamala Harris will become the first female US Vice President. In other parts of the world, from Germany to Taiwan to New Zealand, women are already in the top job (and have been for some time!). But despite women smashing glass ceilings in all areas of civic and corporate life, most of us still aren’t very comfortable describing ourselves as ambitious.

The word ‘ambition’ is loaded with negative connotations for women. Ambitious women are unfairly assumed to be aggressive and selfish and neglectful of their responsibilities to their family. Naturally, many of us avoid using the word, instead chasing our dreams quietly and trying not to draw too much attention to ourselves.

In this podcast, Elise Stevens speaks with Ambition Unboxed founder Nicole Maaguo. Nicole wants you to consider how holding back from the word could actually be holding you back from your goals.

She says people need to get used to hearing women say the word ‘ambition’, which means we all need to start saying it.

Points raised in this podcast:

  • The word ‘ambition’ comes from the Latin word ‘ambitio’ which means ‘desire for popularity or flattery’; or to campaign as if you wanted public office. As women were historically barred from holding public office, they were quite literally barred from being ambitious.
  • Generally, society views ambition as a positive trait in men but a negative trait in women, who are instead valued for being kind, caring and beautiful.
  • Ambitious women are often considered aggressive, forceful or selfish.
  • Ambition can also be negatively associated with power grabs or unearned success for both genders. 
  • Many women avoid using the word ‘ambition’ for fear of its negative connotations, instead describing themselves as ‘driven’ or ‘career-oriented’.
  • Ambition is not only about climbing the corporate ladder or achieving an executive title, it could be a desire to pursue a side hustle or career side-step. 
  • Our technology and innovation-driven society values youth and does not always acknowledge that older people have ambition. People in their 60s are often perceived to be on a slope to retirement and uninterested in new opportunities.
  • Often women lean back from their career ambitions in order to focus on their family life. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen women dropping out of the workforce at high levels, largely due to family responsibilities. However, stepping back for a season because of competing priorities in your life is different to stepping back from your ambitions entirely.
  • Leaning back from your ambitions is worthwhile if you need a period of clarification or to re identify your goals.
  • Holding back from describing yourself as ambitious may be a sign that you’re holding yourself back in other areas.
  • If you were given a dream or goal it’s because you have an innate desire to make it happen. Trust your intuition and you will develop the skills you need along the way.

About Nicole:

Nicole is the creator of the Ambition Unboxed community and host of the Ambition Out Loud podcast. As a woman in tech, she understands how women in male-dominated fields often feel undervalued and underestimated at work. Now she helps women reclaim their inner bad-ass so that they can embrace their ambition and unbox the recognition and opportunities they deserve. Outside of work, Nicole is a STEM-loving mum-of-three, caffeinated optimist, and distracted crafter. 

You can connect with Nicole on LinkedIn.