why the world needs more ambitious women ( + ambition is not a dirty word)



In January 2009, there was an article in the Harvard Business Review called “Women and the Vision Thing” comparing male and female leaders.

To the researchers’ admitted surprise, “as a group, women outshone men in most of the leadership dimensions measured. There was one exception, however, and it was a big one….”


Women scored lower on developing and communicating a vision.

A couple of years later, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg kicked up controversy when she called upon women to close “the ambition gap” between women and men. Women need to be – and stay – more ambitious, she said, if they’re to belly up to the table of power.

You could argue: Why would women even want to? Why should the world care? And what do overpaid CEOs have to do with the rest of us?

You could argue: What does it mean to have ‘ambition’, anyway?

But it does the world no good when over half its citizens are wildly underrepresented in the rooms and boardrooms and corridors of power and have, as Anne Doyle puts it, “the influence of a special interest group”; when the female perspective carries such little weight that discussions about events that directly affect women don’t include women (witness the recent GOP all-male gathering to debate women’s access to birth control), or don’t include enough women to make a difference.

As Doyle reports in her book POWERING UP:

Don’t kid yourself: size matters…..[sustainable] cultural change requires collective power. An abundance of research shows that few lone women, no matter how exceptional they are, have little impact on the conversation of a nearly all-male group, let alone its decisions. It takes critical mass to shift group dynamics. It isn’t until minority voices reach “a tipping point” of one-third representation in groups that they begin to significantly influence outcomes.

…..Whether it’s an executive leadership team or scriptwriters for Jon Stewart’s THE DAILY SHOW, lone, diverse voices – with a different perspective than the dominant majority – have little power.

A different perspective equals different priorities, a different approach.

Companies are actually more profitable when three of the ten board members – are women. (One wonders if the financial meltdown would have happened any differently if there had been enough women – who don’t self-destruct the way men do and hence better investors — to temper the testosterone.)

And — as Nicholas Kristov has observed in his great book HALF THE SKY — when women in the developing world hold assets or gain incomes, they invest in their home and their community: family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing. Consequently children are healthier.

And security experts have observed that the countries that nurture terrorists are disproportionately those that marginalize women: countries like Yemen, Somalia, the “Af-Pak” region of Afghanistan-Pakistan:

But I think that if you look at this century and you look at the instability, the conflicts that we have in so many places in the world, there’s a direct relationship between the subjugation and oppression of women and extremism. It is therefore in our interest to stand up for the rights of women. Because by doing so, we enhance our own security.

– Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

When I was at TEDxWomen, Barbara Streisand made a surprise appearance to introduce C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, who is doing pioneering research into gender differences in heart disease. Heart disease kills more women than all the cancers combined. (Did you know this? I didn’t.) But heart attacks present much differently in women than in men – which means that women have died from heart attacks that they didn’t even know they were having. (Do you know the symptoms of a female heart attack? I didn’t.) Nor did their doctors. Since medical research focuses on men, the male norm is taken as the norm for males and females both. As a result, heart disease in women has gone undetected and untreated.

It took a woman to figure this out.

In short: when women have power and influence, women are better off.

So is the world.


Vision and ambition are connected. To have ambition is to have a sense of how things could be but aren’t yet. It’s to nurture a radical sense of possibility – and strive to make that possibility a reality.

I was struck by a recent post by Tara Gentile in which she asked women how they felt when someone called them ‘ambitious’:

I think this response from Annching Wang…sums it up:

“I’ve been called that several times, and it has always seemed strange to me…like I’m overreaching for something.”

I think, at the heart of it, we want to be ambitious. We want to stretch ourselves. We want to push our capacity for greatness.

But that rubs against the status quo. When you allow your ambition to show, it’s like you’ve taken a little step off the straight & narrow path. Especially if you’re a woman.

Ambition has long been a man’s territory. Men dream big dreams and are expected to fulfill them. A woman’s ambition is, how shall we say, more demure? “Ambitious” has been a derisive term when applied to women. Exactly as Annching suggests: overreaching. Out of her league.

Overreaching. Out of her league.

But isn’t that what ambition is supposed to be about? When a goal is within your reach, can it even qualify as ambitious?

I was married to a man who wants to colonize Mars. Some might consider that ‘overreaching’ and yet I doubt he cares. In the pursuit of this goal he’s built his own rocket company and gone down in history with the first privately funded rocket to reach orbit. He’s also obscenely, ridiculously wealthy. By overreaching, by following his vision, he’s done very well for himself — and has contributed to and impacted the culture.

You could even say that women overreach all the time, as they juggle a bewildering array of responsibilities everyday, as they shift between working in the workplace and working at home, as they try to have it all and make it come out right, as they try to make sure that everybody is happy, as they cater to the needs of others at the expense of their own, as they clean up the messes, as they strive for this rather mythical thing known as balance, as they navigate the guilt when this doesn’t happen. Having babies and raising children – especially as a single mother – requires an ambition all its own, especially in a culture that pays lip service to motherhood without awarding it any real status or economic value.

It’s when a woman steps out of her league – and out of her place – and into domains where, as Anna Fels puts it, “recognition is based on a talent or skill or hard work – rather than on appearance, sexual availability, pure social skills, or subservience” – domains that have traditionally belonged to men – that things get complicated.


In her book NECESSARY DREAMS: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, Fels writes about the relationship between ambition and recognition. Recognition

is one of the two most powerful and vitalizing elements required for the pursuit of long-term goals


The daily texture of women’s lives from childhood on is infiltrated with microencounters in which quiet withdrawal, the ceding of available attention to others, is expected, particularly in the presence of men.

The traditional ideal of femininity includes being ‘selfless’ – as in, lacking any kind of self that takes up space, that has requirements of its own, that looks out for its own best interests. To make a claim on attention (that isn’t sexual in nature) — to compete with men for the limited resource of recognition — is to call your very femininity into question (witness the media treatment of basically any female politician).

TEDxWomen came into being for this reason. One of the organizers explained to me that they were having trouble getting women speakers at the regular TED conferences because the women kept turning them down and selflessly referring them to male colleagues instead. If they made a conference that was all women, the organizers reasoned, this would stop happening.

(It also meant that men, in general, wouldn’t take the conference as seriously. I certainly didn’t see a lot of men in the audience. At least two high-ranking female executives chose not to tell their male superiors that they were taking the day off to attend an all-female event, out of concern that it would seem a frivolous use of their time.)

Yet it is precisely recognition that fuels your quest to improve, master and achieve.

The Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s took an unexpected turn when investigators attempted to determine the working conditions that would best optimize productivity. A group of women factory workers were selected as guinea pigs. The investigators soon discovered that every change in work conditions – from the hours worked to the lighting to the number of rest breaks – seemed to increase the women’s output. Eventually they realized that physical conditions were not responsible at all. Morale soared among the women workers when they believed themselves to have been singled out for special attention, when the investigators expressed genuine interest in their opinions and productivity.

Recognition, it turns out, changes the brain.

It increases the production of neurotransmitters: they energize you, enhance your confidence and enable you to focus.

This, Anna Fels points out:

…explains why recognition promotes learning. It explains [why] recognition increases productivity. We sustain effort on projects that maximize present or future affirmation….

…In terms of the economy of recognition, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Those who have received recognition can sustain the effort required to pursue their interests successfully; this in turn leads to more recognition and increases their feelings of self-worth and capability. Furthermore they are motivated by the realistic expectation, based on prior experience, that future efforts will indeed produce additional recognition.

…if you are perceived as talented and bright and motivated, you actually become more talented and bright and motivated.

It also explains why ambition is not static. It grows and shrinks throughout your lifetime, according to what you can see and believe about your own abilities – and how they’re reflected back to you by the people around you.

I’m reminded of that quote by Albert Einstein:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

It’s often noted that men will overestimate their abilities and intellect while women underestimate theirs. This is usually explained (as so many gender differences are nowadays) as innate traits with evolutionary advantages – men had to cockily go forth and kill the tiger or battle the enemy, women had to cautiously hunker down to protect themselves and their offspring.

And yet I keep thinking of something Jen Siebel Newsom, director of the documentary MISS REPRESENTATION, said about how her two children were welcomed into the world. Her daughter was showered with gifts involving princesses and the color pink. Her son was showered with gifts that suggested he would grow up to be the President of the United States. Both her son and daughter have the same father – Gavin Newsom, the Mayer of San Francisco – and yet received wildly different forms of recognition from the moment they were born.

So if you become what you are perceived to be, and you’re perceived from day one to be a major contender, then you become….?

And if you’re not….? If the major attention you receive – or see others of your gender receiving – has to do with being pretty and hot and thin and sexually available, if modestly shrugging off recognition is baked into your very notion of what it means to be a girl (and then a woman), what do you become?


I am ambitious.

There. I admitted it.

I’m also a mother, and so my ambition has lived uneasily inside me even as I refuse to sacrifice it. I can’t. To stop writing and reading would be to stop breathing, or at least to stop thinking and feeling like myself. When I lost myself – for a while in my early and mid-thirties, after the death of my baby son and the cancerous dissolution of my marriage – it was my writing that brought me back to a healthy sense of center: Oh yeah. This voice. This voice is mine, this is who I am, and nobody, but nobody, can tell me any different. (Certain people tried.)

But it’s only recently that I’ve started to take my ambition seriously. I lived in a very spacious house in Bel Air, and yet I wrote two of my published novels sitting cross-legged on my bed because I didn’t have a desk of my own, much less a room of my own, and it didn’t occur to me to press the point. The novels themselves, I was ambivalent about. They were written in a genre I had loved growing up, but as my life deepened around me in unexpected ways, my sense of myself as a writer started to change. Or rather, it went into crisis. I didn’t know if I had the chops to write the book I truly wanted to write, but I didn’t want to write anything else (except blog posts).

Now, as a milestone birthday starts to edge round the seasons and come into view, I can say: Fuck it. There is so little time on this earth, and if I’m going to take time away from my kids it had better be the right dream I’m chasing. It’s a bit like that Nike commercial I remember from when I was a teenager: Go big or stay home (“I hate that commercial!” my sister said savagely).

Why not go for whatever greatness I have in me? Why not overreach? Why not attempt to model for my sons a life of passion and accomplishment (that exists independently of any man)?

But to think this way – much less to admit it in public – still feels wrong. Contaminated. Shameful. And it’s possible that the only reason I can think this way is because I’m incapable of anything else, for that’s how embedded my ambition is within me.

Imagine if someone said this to you:

If you are a woman for whom career greatness and passion for your work matter, then your professional goals ought to be sacrosanct. Actualizing the talents you were born with must always hold equal importance in your life, including family, romantic relationships, children, and community. The world deserves to hear from you.

Does this sound odd to you? Is it the first time anyone has said this to you?…Now count how many times you have been advised to value and protect your ambition as you would any other virtue. You can probably count all of this on one hand.

And yet, if you were to put your ambition first, it would make you a better person in every other aspect of your life…a happier individual, a better partner, a more present parent, a more compassionate friend, and a more engaged community member. You would, in fact, be more alive and grounded in every realm of your life.

(from the book AMBITION IS NOT A DIRTY WORD by Debra Condren).

Yes. Imagine that.


To form a vision – much less communicate it to others – is to admit to ambition.

Maybe even the crazy, colonize-Mars level of ambition.

It’s to admit that you are deliberately overreaching. That you dare to go for greatness.

No wonder women are hesitant.

Tara Gentile writes about “ambition with purpose” and I like that. It seems a good definition for what vision is: something bigger than you, that attracts and compels others, that makes the world better for you being in it.

Chris Guillebeau writes about creating a legacy project. I always liked the sound of that – and, now, can’t help wondering how many women openly discuss their own ‘legacy project’ or even admit that they want to leave something behind (other than their wondrous children, should they have any), something lasting, something born from the unique mix of talent, need and opportunity that only they can provide and fulfill.

(Are you working on a legacy project? If you aren’t, do you want to?)

To value your ambition means to value yourself. Your self. Your identity, your soul, your birthright.

There’s a quote from Madonna, who would know:

Power is being told you are not loved and not being destroyed by it.

When you have work that you love, you don’t live vicariously through others, and you don’t look to others to give your life meaning – which means that no one can take it away from you. You raise your unique voice, and inspire others to raise theirs.

Marianne Williamson has said: Your playing small does not serve the world.

I believe it.

Apr 6, 2012

28 comments · Add Yours

<3 Two quotes on my fridge are "Go big or go home," and "Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you're right." (Ford). I've always assumed I would fight to be the best at everything I do – why wouldn't I? I annoy myself when I know I'm not trying my best. It never occurred to me not to.


“And yet, if you were to put your ambition first, it would make you a better person in every other aspect of your life…a happier individual, a better partner, a more present parent, a more compassionate friend, and a more engaged community member. You would, in fact, be more alive and grounded in every realm of your life.”
I want to believe that. I do. But every time I have delved into something with all my soul and devoted myself to it, my friends and family call me selfish or say I am only thinking about my own happiness and not caring about theirs (this includes my mother). And then I feel torn. What do you do when it seems it’s your very loved ones that seem to make obstacles in your path?


This is a tremendous post. As a male with big ambition and overreaching vision for my own pursuits, I can honestly say that I have such gifts precisely because of the women in my life who’ve encouraged it. I really believe that it is the female influence in the world that makes “outsized” dreaming possible. It’s only right that women (and girls) should harness that power for themselves without apology. Let men (with real vision) learn how to do some of the supporting of your ambitions for a change.


@Aurooba Ahmed Tell them that you’re doing the same thing you would do if you were on an airplane that lost its cabin pressure. The responsible thing is to put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping anyone else. It’s not selfish to act in a way that maximizes the chances of everyone surviving. This principle still applies even when you aren’t in mortal danger. It’s just as important if you’re trying to thrive. It always has to start with you. Then you’ll be in a position to help others you care about do the same.


This is an important post and topic. Well done. It’s reminding me of how I want to talk to girls. No more: “That’s a pretty dress.” Instead let’s say, “You’re strong, you’re brave.” “I like to hear what you say when you speak up.” No more of the pretty dress thing, it’s the wrong focus.


Justine, thank you for this post. I can’t tell you how much my mindset has changed from reading your blog and picking up books that you include in your writings. On the surface, things haven’t changed much, but I’m going for better jobs and finally taking my own writing seriously. I don’t always comment, but I just wanted to let you know your blog really does make a difference.


Awesome post! I loved the quote from Einstein and so much more. A wonderful wake up call for the morning. I’m going offline now to work on my book…


Great post. I have to admit ambition sounds like a dirty word for me too. I even wrote, not long ago, that just thinking about ambition sufficated me. Until I started to do what I really feel for. I love that quote by Madonna. I think, we let ourselves get hold back by people (even though they might love us) because they are either jealous or scared for us. What if we would not succeed? They would tell us; we told you so! But I guess we can only grow when we accept and learns from things that might go wrong in the process. Well, to make a long story short: great post, food for thought. Thanks a lot.


@Jess Corra Nurture and protect that sense of “go big or stay home!” especially when/if you get remarried and have kids (and choose a partner who can genuinely support that….)

@Aurooba Ahmed Oh, that is difficult and I feel for you. ‘Selfish’ is one of those words that gets lobbed at women (‘crazy’ is another one) when they’re being inconvenient and refusing to follow any agenda except their own. And we let ourselves get so twisted inside out by the word (call a man selfish, does he care?). I used to be in a similar situation until my therapist — a brilliant accomplished woman I admire — set me straight. She told me to say, “Yes, if selfish means to be looking out for my own best interests, then yes, I am selfish.” Keep in mind that the ideal we are usually (not always, but usually) being compared to is a selfless, all-sacrificing Angel in the House kind of thing (and if you really were like that, people would be walking all over you). Either way, you can’t really win, so go in the direction of what feeds your soul and makes you feel most like yourself. And when your family sees you thriving — and they realize they can’t manipulate you with guilt anymore — they’ll hopefully start to respect and even appreciate your choices. And if they don’t, well — that’s why we get the chance to go into the world and create our own families, whether it’s with a mate and kids or a group of closeknit friends. If your family can’t respect and honor healthy boundaries, then you need to keep some healthy distance from them, at least mentally if not physically.


“When you have work that you love, you don’t live vicariously through others, and you don’t look to others to give your life meaning – which means that no one can take it away from you. You raise your unique voice, and inspire others to raise theirs.” — can i just say a very hearty FUCK YEAH! xo


There’s so much to respond to in this post. I felt myself getting all revved up and opinionated while reading it – thanks for sparking my indignation!

I believe I am a very ambitious person. I recently had a date with someone who described himself as ‘lazy’. After the date I didn’t hear from him again. I found myself thinking, “I’m too ambitious for him.”

And that’s okay, because I don’t want to be with anyone for whom I am ‘too’ anything.

It does seem that people are uncomfortable with ambitious or ‘out there’ – loud, big, opinionated – women. I say that’s their problem.

I don’t want to colonize anything. I don’t know if my work is ‘legacy’. I am here to help women express themselves as fully as possible, and it has to start with me. My ambition fuels me and energizes others and I’m not going to apologize for it. Ever.

Thank you for your ambition and your voice.


Justine, you write with such passion. Each post is so beautiful – rambling from thought to thought to thought – and yet so pointed that it pierces the heart and mind like an arrow that hits its mark and then reverberates with the impact – sending ripples of can’t-get-this-out-of-my-mind whisperings bouncing around my head.

All of this resonates deeply. I have always been that quintessential woman – in the background, deferring to others, marginalizing my own wishes. My friends would never believe this of me. They see a strong, independent, single mom who runs her own business, shoots off her mouth on a regular basis, and is always putting herself out there in ways that surprise them.

… but … I know that what they see is only the tip of the iceberg. I know that I am still stuck in the preconceptions about our gender – struggling to step outside of those subtle but sinister boundaries. I’m honestly not even sure yet where I want to go, but I feel about to burst at the seams. And when I read a post like this one, I feel like crawling out of my skin … or perhaps, as some of my friends jokingly believe I’ll do someday, running naked down the middle of the street, probably screaming.

Anyway, thank you. Thanks for giving voice to these ideas and feelings. Always such a pleasure to carve time out of my day for a hit of your insight, inspiration, and no holds barred ass kicking (when needed).


Oh yeah. LOVE THIS SO BAD. I’m like … am I even ALLOWED to Think Big, in the world? Hell yeah.

Thank you. So much in here, I need to come back and read it again.


This is so great. Ambitious women are also called bossy. Like that’s a bad thing. Sigh.


I had a legacy project in medicine, and it was one I couldn’t have turned down or discarded under any circumstance. (The hope-focused transformation of a medical clinic, including training for medical staff.) It compelled me to work from a different place than anything else I accomplished in that world. I knew some people dismissed it as too feminine and touchy-feely, but I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t have to rationalize or work to get to that point, either — one of the best things about the experience. It was bigger than me and had to be done.

I haven’t found that same sense of purpose yet in writing, certainly not in blogging, but I’m searching for possibilities.

Just this morning I was thinking I would like a mentoring/mastermind kind of group. It’s easier to confess and nurture ambition in a group of others who unapologetically think the same way.

Anyway, this is rather a rambling comment but I wanted to say “bravo” and I hope you go for it.


@Luke Redd Luke! Awesome advice! :)


Thanks so much for this article, Justine. It made me realise how too often I’ve subconsciously (and consciously) felt guilty for having ambition as a woman. But how crazy is that?! We shouldn’t be afraid to live to our full potential. At all.


Is it weird that I want to crawl into your brain (or maybe just sit on your shoulder when you think out loud) and see how everything comes together? I absolutely LOVE this perspective, this piece of writing, and getting a glimpse into your beautiful, ambitious world.

I’m ambitious. And I think it is weird for women to be, but there’s also this other side… where if women try to be ambitious, they give up everything of themselves in the name of reaching goal X. Think of the women who work 12, 14, or even 16 hour days, don’t take care of themselves, don’t sleep enough, eat well, exercise, or have a life of their own. I somehow don’t think that’s really ambition.

I think that’s what women think they need to do to catch up to men, or how men operate. Women can be ambitious and achieve greatness, while taking a bubble bath and having champagne. As someone recently pointed out to me. :)


Nathalie, I think you make a great point. I’m not sure that’s true in all cases, but I think overall, women do buy into the whole “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far” approach – which isn’t really true.


Nathalie, you make a great point. I’m not sure that’s true in all cases, but overall, women do buy into the whole “you have to work twice as hard to get half as far” approach – which isn’t really true.


Great article and great point Nathalie. As the daughter and friend of a number of ‘strong ambitious women’ who definitely believe in ‘working twice as hard’ I have seen how this approach can destroy health and personal identity. I admire them for their achievments and attitude but I worry about them too as they plow through life with so little regard for their own wellbeing and so little patience then for those ‘selfish, shallow women’ drinking champagne in the bath… I have tried / am trying to put on my own oxygen mask first but for me that means being a little kinder to myself first and yes that sometimes comes across as having ‘less ambition’ and I don’t know quite how I feel about that, there certainly has to be a balance that I don’t pretend I have found yet. But I do feel that women working themselves to the bone can sometimes be just another way of subconciously wanting / needing someone else to save, care or ‘fix’ them and it really irritates and saddens me… I know that’s not what this article is advocating but I see this kind of self nihilating behaviour so often in the private lives of these women that are so admired out in the world for their ‘ambition’ and that is why I balk a bit at claiming that definition for myself.


I just wrote a blog post yesterday about working part-time and not being ambitious on the career front while kind of wanting those two things to work together. But, heck, I am ambitious on other fronts. I just never really recognised that fact.


As always, an extraordinary post. It would be interesting to explore at some point the connection between ambition and purpose and the passion of the explorer – http://bit.ly/ahAXMS In my experience, passion is the catalyst for fusing ambition and purpose – those with the passion of the explorer are unstoppable. A broader topic would be to then explore what environments promote and nurture passion and what environments stifle it. My own view is that we all innately have the potential for passion but too many of us have been in environments that punish passion.


as long as ambition can be separated from ego, meaning, the vision is running us .. then be ambitious.

otherwise, ambition, independent of gender, is irritating as eff to be associated with … it always results in net human whole-system loss.


Justine, where you wrote
“Oh yeah. This voice. This voice is mine, this is who I am, and nobody, but nobody, can tell me any different”
I have recently begun to find my voice so I know where your coming from, and if I could not write…well that would be a death sentence.
Now, when as a species, will we realize that it doesn’t matter what gender we are, anymore that it matters what color our skin is, or what God or Gods we do or do not believe in, to be able to perform anything no matter what it is.
Reason suggests that a man and a woman of equal age and education should be able to do just as good a job as each other
I think it comes down to creativity and sheer will and desire to succeed that will set any one apart, whether it be a man or woman.
I just wish the bullshit would end.
Thanks for another awesome post


Thank you for this post. I admit that I am one of those ambitious women who got so scared stepping out because some people berated me in the past for being too ambitious or a careerist.

Now, I’m letting all these fears go and moving towards doing the big work – accepting that i am indeed a leader with a big and bold vision that can change the world


I am a 25 year pursuing a degree in microbiology and one day will be the director of the CDC. In the meantime I am gonna go get a phd in tropical medicine and make my mark on electric vehicles. I was once an engineering student and once I discovered or rather rediscovered my interest in viruses my passion was ignited. I still haven’t forgotten about my love of cars and that’s where I have a plan to leave a lasting legacy concerning electric vehicles. I never grew up with the princess as an idle. I grew reading and dreaming of landing on the moon, of being a doctor. All my idols were men and I grew up wondering if I was really meant to have been born a man. in reality I am perfect the way I am and am every bit the equal of any man. You will someday hear my name associated with great things because I am ambitious. My ambition is what fuels and makes me excited for the future. No one can take that away from me! And I love you blog for being such an inspiration!! Thank you!!!


Ambition seems like such a dirty word among women who are not on the corporate treadmill. Whenever we voice any ambitious thoughts, we are immediately shot down by so many around us, men and women. And even ourselves. Or maybe it’s just in Australia? We don’t like “Tall Poppies”.

What scares me most about my ambition is talking about it, admitting it to others, having a go. Because if I do, I’ll probably be shot down.


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