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What’s Gender Got to Do With It? The Sexism of Ambition

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago, right around the time Joe Biden was poised to pick his female Vice Presidential nominee, and the panel on this particular episode was discussing the current buzz around his shortlist. (It feels important to note that the hosts were all white men). One of the hosts brought up political attacks painting Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren as “too ambitious” and unashamed in their desire to be President because they ran in the primary elections. Meanwhile, Karen Bass, another potential pick, was praised for “never being ambitious about running for president.” (Here’s a great think piece that summarizes the attacks and takes this theory further to say that criticisms on ambition are only being applied to VP candidates of color.) One of the hosts of the episode I was listening to blasted such criticisms by saying, “It’s actually not a bad thing to have a Vice President who wanted to be and might want to be President in the future. That’s not a bad quality in a politician, to have them want to seek a higher office.” Another host responded, “It’s also a quality that’s inherent in about 95 percent of politicians… Joe Biden was Vice President for eight years and then he ran.”

This discussion got me thinking about how ambition is always celebrated when it comes to men, but deemed a dirty word when speaking about women, especially in politics. It manifests most prominently in the workplace, but ambition in women is usually stunted by others from an early age. I remember clearly being called bossy as a kid, and being taught to use that word as an insult towards other girls. Why is there such a focus on teaching children that a girl wanting to take charge or being able to clearly articulate her goals and desires is a bad thing? And why, so often, do we conflate bossiness or ambition with bullies as a young kid? Obviously the answer is sexism, but I think this is a discussion worth having, and a notion worth challenging in your daily life.

When I set out to write this piece, I struggled to form my thoughts about the nuances of ambition at first. So instead of making you stumble through my thought process, here’s part of an interview with Ines Temple, a Peruvian businesswoman with a list of accolades as long as a mile and president of LHH-DBM Peru and LHH Chile:

“Well-aimed and supported by values, ambition reflects a healthy self-esteem and higher power of abstraction and visualization of the future. Ambitious people have a gleam in their eyes as they approach their goals. They vibrate at a higher level and have a contagious enthusiasm about accomplishing things. They inspire and motivate others. It should be noted that being ambitious does not imply a lack or values or ethics. Neither lack of control or being manipulative, as many in Western civilization often think. Here, we don't value ambition. We fear it and mistrust it (almost as much as the success of others). We are very quick at mistaking it with ambition unchecked.”

(A side note before we continue -- the article this interview appeared in was mainly composed of Ines’ words, but the feature image was of the author…)

One piece of Temple’s thoughts on ambition struck me -- we fear and mistrust ambition “almost as much as the success of others.” There’s this notion that ambition means someone is determined to climb to the very top, not caring who they knock aside along the way (including you). I think this negative connotation resonates most deeply in women’s ambition because it feeds into the common misconception that there isn’t enough room at the top for every woman who wants to be there. But if the ultimate role model Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is ready to make room at the top for eight other female justices, we should be able to follow her lead. Feminism and gender equality in the workplace can, and should, be closely tied with a reframing of the term ambition.

As a former Latin student and simply a lover of languages, I was curious to find out where “ambition” originated. Apparently its roots date back all the way to ancient Rome and the Latin word ambire, meaning “to go around.” This was most commonly used to describe how politicians of the day would walk around and gather support and votes. (Also worth noting that women could not hold office or vote in politics in Ancient Rome, so this term was tied closely to the sexist world of politics, even thousands of years ago). And since campaigning was the pursuit of honor and power, the term became defined as “the desire for honor or power.”

Flash forward a couple thousand years to my own childhood, where I received messages from books and movies that the driven and self-assured woman or girl always found success (think Elle Woods, Olivia Pope, Leslie Knope, or any book by Sophie Kinsella) . But in real life, being passionate and ambitious didn’t make me many friends. I questioned my worth, despite the awards and titles I received. Much like the critiques of female vice presidential picks, wanting a job or student government position seemed to turn people away from my campaign or ideas. At least in my personal experience, having ambition simply wasn’t “cool.”

Then when I went to college, I was suddenly surrounded by ambition. In classes, student organizations, and at internships. Guys would introduce themselves in classes and even at parties by their name and what senatorial or congressional seat they wanted to run for. In my four years, I don’t ever remember a woman introducing herself that way, despite the women I knew who wanted to run for office. Even in my most inclusive class, where the professor made a point to ensure the men, especially the white men, didn’t take up all the time, I experienced a gendered disconnect. There are numerous studies about how men and women participate differently in the classroom, but I had never seen it more apparent than in this particular class. One male student would constantly assert himself, his experiences, and his opinions over everyone else, even going so far as slamming tables to emphasize this point. Now, I’m not saying this is a healthy form of ambition, but it made me think how when men are demonstrative in support of their point or career in general, they are seen as determined and passionate. When women do it, they’re labeled as crazy and irrational.

We see this all the time in entertainment, sports, and pop culture today. Being ambitious and assertive in sports is seen as the default for men, but when Serena Williams called out an umpire in 2018 for unfair code violations, she was penalized for what her male peers have done without repercussions. In the music industry, there are examples left and right of women behaving similarly or being more ambitious (groundbreaking, I know) than their male counterparts and taking serious criticism for it. Whether you’re a Taylor Swift fan or not, I recommend you listen really closely to the lyrics of her song, “The Man.” One line that resonates most strongly with this piece and me as a whole is: “They'd say I hustled / Put in the work / They wouldn't shake their heads / And question how much of this I deserve.” Or even more recently, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion are taking a seemingly endless stream of criticism for talking about their own bodies in “WAP” like men have done for decades, but for some reason their capitalization on this market is unacceptable. Ambition should not be a disqualifier or reason to cast doubt on a woman’s accomplishments as much as it isn’t for men.

(In this next paragraph, I’ll be briefly discussing the #MeToo movements and Harvey Weinsten, so if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, feel free to skip to the final paragraph)

Before I close, I think there is a nefarious side to the sexism tied up in the term “ambition” that needs to be addressed when talking about its applications in modern society. I’m sure you’ve heard the dangerous accusations before, whether on television or in real life, that a woman cannot achieve dramatic success in the workplace without “sleeping her way to the top.” Not only is this a sexist and demeaning statement, it completely dismisses the possibility that she could work hard to advance her career. Additionally, the #MeToo movement highlighted how much more dangerous such an accusation can be -- some of the actresses that Harvey Weinstein targeted were slut-shamed for reportedly getting involved with the producer shortly before their “big break,” even as recently as a few weeks ago, with no regard to his abuse of power or the actresses’ talents. Weaponizing a woman’s ambition to spread rumors about her, specifically her sexuality, ventures a little too closely to saying she is “asking for it.”

Here’s a general rule of thumb to apply if you’re about to make a derogatory comment about a woman’s ambition: take a step back, evaluate if what you’re about to say or type is based on fact or on centuries of stereotypes, and (hopefully don’t) proceed. It will likely take some unlearning, because our society is constructed around these biases that inevitably get passed on to us as we grow up. But if you replace criticism of a woman’s ambition with celebration of it, you’re now part of the solution.

This is all to say, challenge this Western idea that for some reason ambition is a bad thing by default, especially in women. If you subconsciously write a woman off because of her “intensity” or “desire for power,” maybe take a step back and think about whether you actually don’t gel with her, or if her behavior plays on a centuries-old stereotype that you’ve been hardwired to perpetuate. More likely than not, it’s the latter. If your friend is discussing how he doesn’t like a female politician or co-worker for how blatant their desire to win an election or earn a promotion is, gently challenge their thinking by proposing a male politician or co-worker who acts similarly for comparison. Like much else, a person’s ambition is all about perception, so do your part to make sure your perception aligns more closely with reality, than with a long and sexist tradition.

Sarah graduated in May from the George Washington University, and is now looking for ways to apply her passion for gender and education equality in the workplace. While at GW, Sarah was President of the school's chapter of She's the First, the Panhellenic Association, and the school's food pantry. These experiences allowed her to explore two of her passions -- empowering women and advocating for intersectional equality -- while learning from those around her. When she is not pursuing her personal mission of leaving a positive impact on the world, you can find Sarah cooking, drinking wine, or watching Parks and Recreation for the fourth time in her new D.C. apartment.

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