It’s 2017 and somehow it still surprises me when I hear a woman publicly, unabashedly express her ambition. I came to that realization while snuggled up in front of the TV a few Sundays ago. I was watching the women’s competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals and they kicked things off with a hype video featuring the top women.
One of those women is Ashley Wagner who’s a three-time U.S. champ, a World silver medalist and a bronze Olympic medalist, and *gasp* she’s 25 in a sport dominated by teenagers.
“If I’d peaked, I would have retired,” Wagner said in the video. She also said how much she wanted to win. She ended up in second place in that competition but was undeterred. She just celebrated a year to the Olympics with a Twitter post saying, “If you love to win, you should say it. And honestly, I’m hooked on it.”
Wagner is continually defying common perceptions of what makes a ‘good’ woman skater's personality. She’s outspoken, she’s fierce and not only does she want to win but she expects it.
For me having that kind of person to look to and say, “Ashley’s not afraid to admit her ambition so why am I?” is incredibly empowering.
I’m an ambitious person. But even just typing those words feels unnatural. For one, my ambition is cloaked in doubt. I worry about admitting specific goals out loud because it’ll make my failure louder if I don’t achieve those goals. Like what if I say, “Five years from now, I want my company to be an important news source for millions of young women,” and then it falls apart in a year?
Another point of hesitation on my ambition is being fearful of appearing conceited or egotistical. I qualify my ambitions with statements like, “I want my company to be successful to help the audience, it’s not about me.”
I’m not alone in my ambition trepidation.
Psychiatrist Anna Fels interviewed a number of women for her book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. Though all her interviewees were well educated, none of them, would admit to being ambitious. She noted that they associated ambition with selfishness and manipulation of others. Fels said that the argument that the women’s hesitancy to declare their ambition couldn’t be mere social convention because men do not speak about ambition as if it’s inherently opposed to humility.
Fels found that a person’s willingness to admit ambition is related to whether that person thinks they’ll be able to achieve the goal and what the value of the rewards are. The rewards piece, she noted is problematic for women. Women see much less reward for public success than men do because the recognition they get for those successes is poorer and less predictable.
And public perception of ambitious women doesn’t help. A study by Columbia University presented participants with details about a venture capitalist and asked the participants whether that person would make a good colleague. Half of the group were told that the VC’s name was Howard, the other half were told it was Heidi.
While the Howard group said the VC seemed likeable, the Heidi group thought she was selfish and less worthy of being hired.
But young women are challenging the negative connotations of ambition. In her research, Anna Fels found that college-age women were more likely to define goals of being an authority in their field and having the recognition of their colleagues. And as Fels said, “Women have greater opportunities for forming and pursuing their own goals now than at any time in history.” So we have to take those opportunities. If you’re an ambitious young woman, don’t be afraid to say so. Set goals out loud and pursue them without feeling selfish. Because seeing other women define who and what they want to be is incredibly powerful. When I hear Ashley Wagner talk about how she wants to win and I see her put in the work to get there, I’m reminded that I can do the same.
So as you finish reading this, I hope you pick up a piece of paper and take a stab at writing down your ambitions. If you want to do one better, pick up the phone and tell a friend, mentor or coworker your ambitions.
Samantha Harrington is co-owner and lead writer of Driven Media, a roving girl-power newsroom.