When I was married, my then-husband and I would often introduce ourselves to people by bringing up our shared occupation. We’d tell everyone from prospective landlords to strangers at parties that we were both journalists. Often, before we could say anything more, people would make a few assumptions. Oh, they’d say to my husband, you must cover politics. And then to me — and I was always the second person they turned to — No, let me guess. You write about fashion? Make-up? Hair!
A man on an awards jury — of which I was a member — once told me he enjoyed my fashion blog. (At the time, I was the editor of a political magazine.) Other men have expressed surprise at the “serious” things I’ve worked on. Beauty journalism is often slotted into the “easy” category, which is slotted into the “women” category, and vice versa. These assumptions reveal deep-seated expectations: namely, that the things men do are serious, whereas women do — and are — fluff.
It’s not easy to be an ambitious woman. We are not supposed to want greatness, or to be the best at serious things, or to win. If we do, then we’re expected to temper those ambitions with prettiness, self-deprecation, and graciousness. When we achieve our goals, we’re supposed to be surprised, as if we hadn’t worked doggedly to succeed.
With the release of Hillary Clinton’s new book What Happened, conversation is again turning to how destructive ambition can be for women. Even before the book came out last week, we’d seen headlines like “The Curse of Hillary Clinton’s Ambition” and “Hillary Clinton Should Be Allowed to Boast.” Think-pieces like these became so ubiquitous that The Onion quipped, “Hillary Clinton Is Too Ambitious to Become the First Female President.”
Ambition in women is seen as off-putting, distasteful, unnatural. Also, confusing: we tell women to Get it, girl, so long as the “it” in question isn’t too masculine or too important. We tell girls they can do anything, but what we really mean is they can do anything so long as they remain quiet and affable while doing so.
We like ambition in women to be contained to pithy marketing, and we want it to be focused on the material: you don’t need a man to get stuff. Stuff can mean a nice car or a nice house, it can mean bling and cash and hot clothes, but it can’t mean achievement, or leadership, or the presidency. Empowerment stretches only so far, then it snaps.
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In 2015, Real Simple and Time magazine teamed up to poll women about ambition. They determined that 50 per cent of women felt pride when their ambition was acknowledged. But another 20 per cent felt embarrassed. Nearly 60 per cent of those same women said they regretted not having been more ambitious at some point in their lives. That’s unsurprising, but also forgivable: for women, it can be tough to stand out.
It’s been like this for a long time. “The women I interviewed hated the very word,” writes Anna Fels in a 2004 Harvard Business Review study. “For them, ‘ambition’ necessarily implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandizement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. None of them would admit to being ambitious.” The study, called “Do Women Lack Ambition?,” also examined how successful women explained their achievements. Most, notes Fels, said they were simply “lucky” and asked interviewers to describe them using words like “bumbling.”
The more we do this, the more the next generation comes to believe that our success is pure happenstance, even though it rarely is. But these women weren’t being disingenuous or sly, Fels concludes — they were truly fearful. Of what? A lot of it, she writes, can be traced back to daily encounters in which women are tacitly expected to cede attention to others, namely men.
“Ambition. The word itself makes me want to run and hide,” writes a contributor to the 2017 essay anthology Double Bind: Women on Ambition. “Even though I’ve settled into a life with as much professional fulfillment as personal happiness, I’m still not sure if my ambition is friend or foe.” Our ambition can help push us toward our deepest dreams, but it can also punish us for wanting.
Beyond not wanting to appear ambitious, women are also distracted from it. This week, I made a TV appearance to discuss my recently published book. Rather than enjoy this high point, the whole day I worried about how fat I surely looked and how boring I surely sounded. The former isn’t so ridiculous: women’s appearances are constantly dissected, particularly in settings where they’re considered outsiders. (In 2013, for instance, a man at a tech event criticized a woman’s high-heeled shoes on Twitter, writing, “WTF? #brainsnotrequired” — a tweet that subsequently went viral.)
Studies have also shown that women must do twice as much as men in the workplace to be judged as favourably. We get stuck with the brunt of the housework, even when there are no children in the mix. We even get stuck with the brunt of the office housekeeping, and are seen as lacking team initiative when we don’t comply. All of which is to say: How are we supposed to be ambitious when it’s so exhausting just to be seen as equal?
As someone with near-constant bags under my eyes, I don’t know the answer to that. But surely it starts with acknowledging that, yes, we did the damn work, and it was not chance that made it good, but our own bright and burning talent.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.
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