We are all taught at a young age that it is commendable to be ambitious and to be the best you can be. I got that message growing up, and I’m sure many of you did as well.
But what I didn't realize until later is that this message has limitations based on gender. Ambitious men are supported, encouraged, and recognized for their achievements. Ambitious women are often viewed negatively; their right to reach advanced status is sometimes denied, and their motives are often questioned. Ambitious women are sometimes seen as nasty, self-serving, and unlikeable.
Even many high-profile successful women seem to have a complicated relationship with ambition. Savannah Guthrie’s comment at a Real Simple/TIME Women & Success event in 2015 that she “hates the word ambition and thinks it’s impolite” is indicative of the negative nuances we as women associate with power and ambition. Guthrie defines her own ambition as “not wanting to fail.” Patti Sellers quotes another speaker at the event, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who says she’s “sensitive about appearing too ambitious” because “the word ambitious tends to connote a sort of titular advance.”
Where does our discomfort with ambition come from? Clearly gender bias and stereotypes play an important role, and our society tends to be overly critical of powerful and ambitious women. In one New York Times Op-ed, the author notes that although women have made some progress in reaching powerful positions in the political and corporate world, “Progress is not inevitable, though, nor is it fixed. The country has a complicated relationship with powerful women: They have to keep proving themselves over and over again, being twice as good, and dragging one woman through the process doesn’t make it easier for those who follow.”
Another article in Fortune speaks to how former presidential candidates Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton were measured against the conventional idea of female behavior with Clinton labeled as “overbearing and shrill.”
As a result of these biases, ambitious women struggle with likeability. According to peer reviewed studies highlighted in this Harvard Business Review article, “high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success — and specifically the behaviors that created that success — violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing.
"Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she 'should' behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine. As descriptions like ‘Ice Queen,’ and ‘Ballbuster’ can attest, we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful ambitious women."
High-achieving women pay the price for owning their ambition. Besides being labeled as nasty, they don’t get promoted and may even get fired for doing what is necessary to get ahead, and for what men are rewarded for doing.
So, what’s an ambitious woman to do? Be sensitive to the gender bias associated with powerful women. Find a balance between being nurturing and giving clear direction and holding people accountable. Use your emotional intelligence to know when taking a hard line is appropriate and when to demonstrate empathy and compassion.
You don’t need to sacrifice your ambition to be likeable. But you do, unfortunately, need to be sensitive to the gender stereotypes and culture of your organization. Because it's only by being aware of these nuances that we can mitigate their impact.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.