I recently listened to much of the Tory Burch Foundation’s Embrace Ambition Summit. It was a fabulous, well planned and interesting day of stories, tips and experiences to encourage and empower women and the men who are committed to step up, support and help empower them. For some, it is easy to embrace the ambition that drives the energy and actions needed to realize the goals they want to achieve; and for others, ambition is viewed as an unpleasant characteristic; and regarding women, something they should not be proud of.
The dictionary definition of ambition is “a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work; desire and determination to achieve success.” The challenging issue that is underlying the negativity is not so much with having ambition, as it is with defining what type of ambition is okay, and who has it. After all, synonyms for ambition are drive, determination, get-up-and-go, motivation and desire. If a woman has these characteristics for “traditional” female gender roles such as motherhood or homemaking, there is less negative feedback. Why is it then, that having ambition and utilizing these qualities for traditionally male career roles is seen as a detriment to a woman’s career? It is because of the perpetuated stereotypes and biases that are not challenged on an individual basis. Could it be that fear and uncertainty has too much power in driving beliefs and behaviors that hold women back?
In a recent roundtable coaching group which I facilitated, there were two common themes many women face in career advancement. One is the risk of being ambitious, powerful, bold and courageous; which translates (among other things) to speaking up, standing out and shining in their career; for a man, the risk would be in not being and doing these things. The other theme is the lack of sufficient support for women in advancement. The idea that sponsors are critical for women in enhancing their careers is not new, but it is a slow-moving train. Many men naturally have sponsors because that is often how the workplace culture works, because it is human nature to gravitate to, focus on and relate to someone like ourselves; and thus, powerful men automatically lean toward male proteges. So, why are many men reticent to become a sponsor for a woman to help progress her career? Women are already in a bind brought on by stereotypes and biases that impact relationships and advancement. We need balanced, grounded men who are willing to lead the way in helping more women advance, with the same commitment and intention they do for male colleagues.
It is absurd that we are still having conversations that stay on the surface about these issues; shaking our heads and simply acknowledging the situation. Real change in advancing women requires digging deeper into personal and interpersonal beliefs and behaviors that have been only acknowledged and then ignored. Until each person, women and men both, is willing to look at the beliefs that hinder and compromise advancement, the situation will not change. Think of the incredible talent and opportunities that are being overlooked, missed or wasted because of the lack of courage and gumption to address and put stereotypes, biases, assumptions, sexism and fears aside.
What will you do to create change; what will you do to move forward; what drive, determination, get-up-and-go, motivation and desire can you muster up to help create equitable workplaces and communities?