Ambition in the Boardroom and the Living Room

Consider these familiar scenarios:

  • A woman in her late twenties has a baby.  After her prescribed maternity leave ends, she decides to go back to work part time, instead of resuming her full-time position.
  • A woman in her mid-forties decides to stop working to take care of her father, who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s.
  • A stay-at-home mom starts up a photography business; a year goes by and it hasn’t taken off like she thought it would, so she slowly dismantles it.

working mom

Have these women lost their ambition?  Kristin Van Ogtrop wrote a piece in Time called “Why Ambition Isn’t Working for Women” that had some holes in it.  She would contend that all three of these common scenarios are evidence that women often give up on their dreams before they realize them.  Success is a direct product of ambition, and when women routinely divert their careers in order to take care of other matters, they are giving up on being successful.  She thinks this is a serious problem.  I contend that there are more ways to think of ambition than just a straight line to the boss’s chair.  Linear ambition is the most definitive type, but there is also redirected ambition–as in the first two examples.  However, there is also a real need to address lost ambition in women (the third example)–no matter their employment situation.

Ambition has a bad rap, at least for women.  “My you’re ambitious!” is a euphemism for telling a woman that she is unpleasantly assertive or overly zealous about something.  Said with the right tone of voice and raised eyebrows, it is the opposite of a compliment.  Interestingly, it is a phrase almost exclusively applied to describe women.  Rarely does someone refer to a male surgeon, lawyer or businessman as “ambitious”.  He is simply “Hard Working” or “Dedicated”.  So the word has got a negative judgement attached; however, ambition as the pursuit of individual excellence is essential to progress in our personal and professional lives.  Another word to describe it might be “hope”.  We hope for more than we have, we hope to become something great.  We look ahead and plan ahead to make the most of our time and talents.  Van Ogtrop and other researchers look only at women who work outside the home as being ambitious.  This seems to miss the bigger picture.  All women hope for things and strive to achieve more.

Linear Ambition

The linear approach to ambition is the ideal for many women.  The problem, as Van Ogrop put it, is that “more women need to see a clear path to the boss’s seat.” The conventional approach is that there is one path, and you stay on it through promotion after promotion until you get to the top.  A recent study shows that for the first two years at a new job, men and women are both equally ambitious to rise to the top of the organization.  After two years, 60% of women’s ambition diminishes.  They cite the long hours, the schmoozing and networking at the golf course to be out of line with the lifestyle they want. The researchers are concerned about this trend and what it means for women.

In addition, the glass ceiling remains a problem for many women in the workplace.  The “Nice Guy Misogynists” are kind to women, yet they pass over them repeatedly for promotions or projects because they think that such things should be handled by men.  Linear ambition does have obstacles for women, and articles like Van Ogtrop’s, and Emma Barnett’s TED Talk highlight the difficulties. Though not all of the obstacles are created by men or the workplace culture.  Women are in part responsible for the problem of faltering ambition–but more on that later.

Redirected Ambition

Redirected ambition is when a woman starts off with a particular goal or position in mind, and then after getting a taste for the lifestyle and required effort, decides that it doesn’t suit her personally and redirects her energy into a different pursuit.  Most likely this is what is happening with some of the 60% of women who change their ambitions.  This commonly happens with new mothers.  The shocking realization that a newborn depends completely on its mother, and the mother enjoys caring for the newborn more than anything else she does at work during the day represents a redirection of ambition.  Now her pursuit of excellence is in being a mother and taking care of her home.  She still needs skills, energy and knowledge to accomplish her ideal, and she can ambitiously pursue them.  It also goes the other way: A mother who is burnt out from the demands of her family decides to get a job outside the home for more adult interaction and to develop different facets of her personality.  Maybe she thought she would be a stay-at-home mom, but the reality of the situation changes the direction of her ambition and hope.  This is normal and right.

Just as we wouldn’t hold our 25-year old children to their toddler-hood ambitions of Astronaut or Restaurant Owner Who Also Owns A Zoo, a person fresh out of school hasn’t yet tried out their careers, should be allowed some flexibility in their ambition as they investigate different paths.  In short, women should reserve the right to change their minds as they experience the reality of their individual situation.  They should be allowed to choose the path that brings them the most happiness and satisfaction, even if it isn’t the path they started out on.

Just because a woman leaves work, or lightens her workload does not mean she should automatically be counted in the “not ambitious anymore” column.  I know some very ambitious women who have chosen to dedicate themselves to their job as mothers and homemakers.  They work over 100 hours a week, do the jobs of at least 7 different professionals, are involved in community and school programs, and create a clean and healthy environment for their family and themselves. Best of all, they are their own boss! Of course, staying home with children is necessarily a team effort, because someone has to be earning the money to pay the bills.  It takes an ambitious woman and man to make that happen for their family.  It isn’t a realistic option for millions of people, but it still represents an ideal for many.

A friend of mine recently went back to Pharmacy School after all of her kids were in school during the day.  After a semester, it grew to be too much to handle: a family of 5 kids at home, all the work of a housewife in addition to the studying load of professional school.  She started to see the negative effects of the diverted attention in her son’s behavior and school work.  She decided to redirect her ambition back home and take care of the things she felt were more important.  So she dropped out of her Pharmacy program after much deliberation.  She said, “It was a very conscious choice.  I wanted to do both, but I always knew that being a mother was my very first priority, so school had to be put on hold.”  Van Ogtrop and other researchers would put this in the “not ambitious anymore” category.  In fact, her own teenaged daughter reprimanded her: “Mom, you are supposed to do things all the way to the end, even if they are hard!”  My friend responded, “I am doing my job all the way to the end.  I need to be your mother more than I need to be a pharmacist.”  The way this definition of linear ambition is seeping into our children’s collective consciousness unsettles me.  Being a mother and a homemaker needs to be honored by society in a way that makes girls aspire to it.  It should be afforded the same level of respect and seen as contributing to society at least as much as an engineer or a doctor. Too many people talk about it as if it were an escape from work.  When in reality, it is a really challenging and rewarding job.

Lost Ambition

No matter whether a woman works at home or in the workplace, there is still a real problem with women losing their ambition–and it is a problem we may create for ourselves.

Anna Fels researched ambition in men and women and discovered that when people talked about their childhood ambitions, it was very straightforward: They wanted to be a rock star, an Olympic figure skater, the President of the United States.

“In nearly all of the childhood ambitions, two undisguised elements were joined together. One was mastery of a special skill: writing, dancing, acting, diplomacy. The other was recognition: attention from an appreciative audience. Looking through studies on the development of both boys and girls, I noticed that they virtually always identified the same two components of childhood ambition. There was a plan that involved a real accomplishment requiring work and skill, and there was an expectation of approval in the form of fame, status, acclaim, praise, or honor.”

Ambition is a self-feeding cycle.  We have a hope in mind (let’s say starting our own bakery) and develop the skills necessary to accomplish it.  We bake our brains out.  And then we need an audience–either taste-testers, or customers if our business is already underway.  We have to have some feedback, some recognition of the value of our skills.  Then we keep improving on our recipes, change our logo, decorate.  More feedback.  More improvements.  More recognition.  More improvement.

Breaking it down into two sections helps identify where the ambition is leaking out.  And for most women, it is in the second area–the recognition.  We are uncomfortable with it, so we don’t seek it out. We demur and apologize: “Sorry my house isn’t cleaner.  Sorry I’m such a mess, my kid just wiped his nose on my shirt. Sorry I missed your call. . .” And if we’ve stepped up from apologizing, then we credit Luck or Providence or God with our success.  “I was just in the perfect place and the right time to get the job.” “He’s always been a great kid, he came out that way.” We simply won’t take credit for good things, instead, we panic.

But women excel at the first part– the skill acquisition.  We are smart!  And capable!  This fact is cited often–women graduate from college and from Master’s programs in greater numbers than men.  We like learning, we are good at it.  The disconnect in the cycle is that we think that our efforts and talents will stand on their own two feet; we don’t need to promote them.  These donuts will be flying off the shelves because they are the best in the city.  But that is only true if people know about them, and they won’t know unless we promote them–promote ourselves and our efforts.  When we don’t seek recognition for our efforts and the bakery is always empty, it doesn’t take too long before we shutter the windows and pull out of the lease.

This is problematic in the business world, where people are anxious to take credit for good ideas, to boost their esteem in their boss’s eyes, and to compete for limited spots at the top.  Women think they will be recognized for their efforts, but unless they are willing to elbow in and take their earned credit, the recognition often passes them by.  And if they are passed over time and again, it is difficult to still feel engaged and valued at work.  Naturally, people give up if they feel like they are wasting time, or their value is being wasted and unappreciated by the company.

This also plays out at home.  Many women start home businesses, they do photography or cake decorating or blogging or sewing–cottage industry in the Pinterest Century.  Their products might be phenomenal, their skills superb–but unless they are willing to market themselves competitively, they will not succeed in the vastness of the internet.  Women shy away from self-promotion just like they would a snake, especially if their audience is their friends.  It seems unfeminine and they don’t want to be that kind of woman.  They insist that their work will make its way to the top, but unless they are unnaturally long-suffering, the rewards that come from learning the skill are too far removed to keep the cycle going.  After months without a photo shoot, a homemaker-entrepreneur might be more likely to give up on her business than to fill her Facebook feed with ads for her business.  She may even be led to believe that her skills aren’t good enough because they weren’t in demand like she thought they would be. This is a shame.

We can fix this in two ways: Women need to be more assertive with putting themselves out there because the recognition feeds the skill acquisition.  Even if it is uncomfortable, it will keep the progress going in the right direction.  Afterall, as children we were happily self-promotional, so our deflection of attention must be a learned trait, and we can unlearn it. And secondly, we women need to be kinder in our thoughts and words to those who promote their own efforts.  Don’t unfriend your Younique Sales person friend because all she posts is pictures of her eyelashes.  Be happy for her success!  You don’t have to buy what she’s selling, but you can re-post it to your wall and support her ambition.  If a co-worker is giving a big presentation, catch her eye and give her a smile.  Nod at the right moments.  Encourage her.

I’ve experienced this lack of ambition personally just at home feeding my family.  Picky eaters are the worst.  Even though I am a great cook (that was hard to admit publicly.  Isn’t that sad), my kids won’t eat my food.  I can’t even get them to eat chocolate chip pancakes with nutella and whipped cream.  The other day instead of a pan of fresh cinnamon rolls, they opted for a bowl of popcorn.  They don’t even eat peanut butter sandwiches.  Women, do you read me?  This is a serious problem.  Dinners are largely uneaten unless they are tacos.  I already let go of my foodie-ways years ago, but now I have a difficult time even making a real meal because I know it is unappreciated.  An ambitious cook would continue cooking inventive and interesting foods even if they were wasted.  I just can’t make myself do it.  The reward for learning the skill is gone because there is no audience to appreciate it.  It’s a small thing, but I think it’s a good example of the mechanics of ambition.


The researchers Bain & Company put out their findings in September 2014 about women losing their aspirations after 2 years on the job by 60%.  This has led to the recent string of articles about ambition.  I challenge the conclusion that a woman who leaves work for a different path is less ambitious.  She is redirecting her energy into something that is important to her.  Success is about personal excellence, not a number on a paycheck or a rank list.  However, for many women, no matter if they work at home or out of the home, there still remains a real ambition drain because they are not willing to feed the cycle of skills and recognition.  Women can address that by simply recognizing that we need to be proud of our efforts and celebrate them.  Embrace the audience that is anxious to acknowledge your successes, and be a part of that audience for the women around you.



8 responses to “Ambition in the Boardroom and the Living Room

  1. What an excellent article. It made me consider some unhealthy perspectives that I have, and didn’t even realize that I did.

  2. Thanks, Jan! Many things you said resonated with me. And this comment is my attempt to reward your writing ambition with appreciation. 🙂

    • Thanks Linds! I’m putting myself out there on every venue this time. Trying to keep that stiff upper lip 🙂

  3. I really love this, Jan. I think you’re spot on in your insights and you’ve pointed out some things I have never thought of before. I’ve long felt like our cultural definition of success is way too narrow, but I’ve never thought of the varying manifestations of ambition. So thanks for making me think! (I will have todos agree about people filling up my Facebook feed with Younique and Jamberry though:)

  4. I’m so glad you’re writing again!! I loved your insights so much. I feel this cycle vividly as I’ve changed my ambition lately from homeschool mom to violin teacher. I’m renewed in my hope to keep getting more students after reading this post. 🙂 Also, I hear you on the example of making food for a family that doesn’t enjoy it. Even just a few picky eaters can make it hard to feel thrilled to whip up a batch of cod with pickled grapes. Also, I really agree that we should be kind to ourselves and be supportive of others as well. Thanks for sharing yourself with us Jan. We need your voice in our lives.

  5. Great article, for the studies to stereotype all women together, assumes that women are basically different than men, which I thought they have been arguing against for many years?

  6. I loved this. I love your writing- it is 100 times better than many professional bloggers’ writing styles. I think you could go pro, if you decided to make blogging the target of your ambition.

    I appreciated the validation you give to women who step back from whatever they’re doing with life and retool. I went through massive cognitive dissonance when we moved here and I quit music to stay home with the kids. I knew it was the right thing to do- I was never really happy to be hauling heavy drums to clubs after my bedtime to play energetic music for four hours and then come home with very little money for the work. I didn’t like the attention, especially when I was pregnant (“I’ve known a lot of drummers who’ve made women pregnant, but I’ve never met a pregnant drummer!” ba-dum-ching!) and found that after several years, on gig nights I was just wishing I was at home reading my book. I may start teaching private lessons again- that was one aspect of professional music that I loved every minute of.

    But the point is, in my opinion, I feel like I’ve learned to be a pretty rockin’ mom, and I’m still learning new stuff every day. My kids seem to be healthy and happy, and I can be as involved in music as I want to be. Success in life isn’t dependent on how successful you are in whatever you got a college degree in, or what you decided you wanted to do so many years ago. It’s ok to retool.

    • Sheesh, thanks Lindsey! I appreciate your recognition of my skill acquisition 🙂 And I think you are a perfect example of redirected ambition. Your kids are great, and you are learning all sort of things in your new career. Plus you still have your mad drumming skills. You are a value-added person.

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