Of women and ambition
A social stigma seems to exist against women who seek success in male-dominated professional sectors. A woman who aims for a high position at a corporation tends to be viewed as unfeminine, uptight, not family-oriented and manipulative. They are also regarded as ‘delusional careerists’ or ‘opportunists’. And it isn’t only men who think this way, writes Nisha Sharmeen Ali
THE recent appointment of Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury as the speaker of parliament, the first in the country’s history, was not surprisingly greeted with cynicism and criticism by, among others, several senior male politicians and lawmakers within the Awami League-led ruling alliance. While the women citizens, particularly those aspiring for political empowerment of women in a decidedly male-dominated society, have reasons to feel encouraged, if not ecstatic, about the appointment, there are many, essentially male chauvinistic in their views, who have lamented the ‘misfortune’ for the country. With the major political parties—the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party—already headed by two women, who have alternated as prime minister since 1990, the appointment of a woman speaker, they fear, could only compound the misery and turmoil that the country is exposed to. Such apprehension, it seems, is gender-biased, to say the least.
Similarly gender-biased is the way Hasina and Khaleda are blamed for the plight of the country, as if their capability to run the government and their respective parties has something to do with them being women. Had the ruling party and the opposition been led by two men, would the assessment have been so gendered, one wonders. There are reasons to believe the actual problem lies not in these two leaders being women but in the ideologies pursued and policies framed by their respective political parties, the policymaking bodies of which are crowded by male members. Yet, there are people who question the leadership ability of the two ladies based on their gender, apparently because of their own patriarchal mindset. These people seem to suffer from a socio-political disorder called male-supremacist syndrome.
Regrettably, the phenomenon is quite universal. Whenever a woman becomes part of a cabinet, be it even in Europe and North America, it is often greeted with an eye-roll of disapproval and the sadly familiar ‘ambitious woman’ alert. Unnecessary speculations and debates over women aiming for, and entrusted with the responsibility to, lead a state or an organisation still prevail in the so-called developed states. Women there still have a rough ride to high-power roles, and contend with age-old traditions and acrid criticisms on the way.
Nicholas Coleridge, president of Conde Nast International that publishes more than 100 magazines including popular Vogue, Glamour, GQ, wrote once about one particular experience where he took part in a selection panel choosing a candidate from a pool of applicants for a public appointment. Half of the candidates were women but, interestingly, the selection panel consisted entirely of middle-aged men.
‘Each time we’d interviewed a woman, and the female candidates were generally stronger than the males, one of my fellow panellists declared, “Good Lord, she was very ambitious, wasn’t she?” When a couple of us had eventually settled on a woman as the right candidate, he looked startled and almost afraid,’ Coleridge wrote.
What is it really about ambitious women? Even now, 13 years into the 21st century, those two words used in juxtaposition conjure up an image of someone aggressive, ruthless, predatory and scary.
A social stigma seems to exist against women who seek success in male-dominated professional sectors. A woman who aims for a high position at a corporation tends to be viewed as unfeminine, uptight, not family-oriented and manipulative. They are also regarded as ‘delusional careerists’ or ‘opportunists’. And it isn’t only men who think this way! Many women are often every bit as censorious and judgmental. ‘What a bitch,’, ‘so tough and pushy’ and such belittling expressions are stereotypically used to describe and label women who are high achievers and ambitious by others belonging to the same sex. The latter are victims of being born and raised in a patriarchal culture that has taught them to look at women, especially those who are accomplished and devoted to their career, with suspicion and ambivalence.
The idea that a woman can only be successful because she somehow connived or engineered her rise, and not because she is too good to be denied, is prevalent. Ambitious women are often viewed with suspicion, if not horror, and they do not fit the criteria of ‘good women’ as traditionally defined by social norms. Good women typically include those who are compromising, sacrificing, softer in approach and primarily focused on taking care of family. Ambitious women on the other hand are discerned by many as wicked and abnormal.
Women are generally discouraged to pursue lucrative, powerful and top-notch positions that would otherwise be filled by men because of the stigma attached with being an ‘ambitious woman’. Studies show that assertive women are more likely to be perceived as aggressive; that women usually don’t demand what they deserve but those who do risk being branded as domineering or, worse even, ‘ambitious’.
Naturally, the question is if these women are displaying ambition or aggression? Does it really matter? It is acceptable, actually encouraged, for a man to be aggressive in the workplace, yet when a woman behaves in a similar manner it becomes unacceptable to many. In certain instances, ambitious women seek advancement in the workplace and don’t do so in overly aggressive manner but are still viewed as aggressive for simply seeking that advancement that they feel they are worthy of. They are often put down and compelled to face many social ramifications. Several young women get deterred even if they are sufficiently qualified and deserve to move higher up than their male counterparts.
A similar scenario is true for women who seek positions of power in government. Hilary Clinton can be taken as a prime example. She has often been branded as excessively masculine. In 2008, the left and right wing news media attacked her using derogatory adjectives. Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard has also encountered acrid remarks about her looks and physique. The news media spent a lot of time criticising Clinton and Sarah Palin over petty matters like their wardrobe choices beside their political viewpoints and there was a huge audience eager to have such irrelevant updates. Did we hear moment-to-moment coverage of Barack Obama’s or Kevin Rudd’s suit selection? It seems that, for women, that kind of criticism is okay, it is acceptable. Media and audience are not only critical of women’s leadership capabilities but also of the way they look and appear. Men are simply not held to those dual standards. Christine Lagarde, the managing director of International Monetary Fund, revealed in a video interview with Forbes that at times she feels under tremendous pressure to look the ‘right way’ and it gets exhausting.
Ask a woman if she is ‘ambitious’, more frequently than not, she will shy away from accepting this adjective that is logically linked to ‘power’. Power has a negative connotation. Even Hillary Clinton would rather not embrace the label. ‘I never think about power,’ Clinton emphasised in an interview. ‘I certainly understand it. But I don’t think about it in relation to myself.’ Women rarely admit their ambitions out loud not only for a fear of failure — a fear shared with their male counterparts — but because wanting to succeed might make them seem less feminine and reduce their appeal in their personal and professional sphere.
Those women who are single or haven’t married by choice are often subjected to harsher criticism. Men get to be ‘evergreen bachelors’, which is perceived to be sexually appealing, while women are reduced to being called ‘spinsters’ and ‘old maids’. When Janet Napolitano, who had served as the governor of Arizona from 2003 to 2009, was nominated and subsequently appointed as the first US secretary of homeland security in 2009, critics singled out her being ‘single’, which, they said approvingly, ‘would allow her to spend more time on the job’. Napolitano has never got married or had children; and as a result, there has been much speculation about her sexual orientation. Although irrelevant, she felt compelled to justify her sexual orientation to the media — ‘I am not gay, just a straight, single workaholic.’
Gina Barreca, an English professor at the University of Connecticut, who has authored several books, writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education that when she asked her female students about why they are reluctant to describe themselves as ambitious, they reply that if they are too eager to get the ‘A’ or to be elected to run some university office or club, they risk losing friends by appearing menacing. ‘They are scared that they will be regarded as ruthless. A sophomore told me, “I don’t want to claw my way to the top,”. Another said, “I don’t want to seem arrogant.” These are all dynamic, smart, and diligent students, none of whom wants to be called a winner in public because they think they risk hurting other’s feelings,’ Barreca observed.
‘Power is in your face and aggressive. I’m not like that,’ says Jenny Ming, president of Old Navy, the immensely successful chain of clothing stores owned by Gap Inc. Indeed, a common strand among those who take on even bigger roles is the notion that power seeks them rather than the reverse. ‘I never sat down and thought, I’ll major in political science and Soviet studies, get a Ph.D., become a professor, serve in the first Bush administration, become a provost at Stanford, and then become National Security Advisor,’ stated Condoleezza Rice while carefully listing her merits during a television interview. ‘Not planning has permitted me to accept the twists and turns. Things just happened for me.’ She was clearly not willing to acknowledge that she climbed up the career ladder owing to her meticulous planning, tenacity, drive and ambition from the time she was young.
Many young women are still instructed to imagine themselves only in mid-level careers because if they aim higher, they might not reach their goals. Several of these women are frequently advised by family, friends, partner or ‘well-wishers’ to pursue a career in care-giving roles like a nurse, child carer, social worker or a schoolteacher even if they may not have any real passion for these professions. Dozens of highly educated, accomplished fast-track women interviewed by Fortune, CNN Money told that they do not wish to run a company eventually or secure the top hierarchal positions of an organisation. However, the same women also confess that they foresee the day in which there is parity in terms of gender representation at the top of corporate organisations.
Contemporary cultural depictions of successful corporate women, like the icy, arrogant magazine editor Miranda Priestly in the Hollywood movie The Devil Wears Prada and ruthless, back-stabbing boss Patty Hewes on popular TV series Damages, portray successful women as unsympathetic power-mongers. ‘A woman who shows emotion in the workplace is often cast as too fragile or unstable to lead,’ said Halley Bock, CEO of leadership and training development company named Fierce. ‘A woman who shows no emotion and keeps it hyper-professional is icy and unfeminine. For many women, it can be a no-win situation.’
Women in general, are afraid of being undesirable and disliked because of their jobs and often end up sacrificing their career interests out of fear. That institutionalised discrimination is how society maintains its current system of male privilege in the work force and across the globe relatively fewer women are found at the top of hierarchies at organisations. Harvard lecturer Olivia Fox Cabane notes that popular perceptions that powerful women are intimidating to men and they will need to sacrifice their personal lives are potentially strong factors that stop women from pursuing their ambitions.
One may ask what exactly the solution is. It is not easy for society to the historically defined role of men and women, as hunters and gatherers respectively. Although absolutely necessary, it is not possible or pragmatic to change the attitude of any society or the world over a brief period of time. But women who desire and deserve should not wait for years for the revolution to take place that will propel them to move forward. Rather, women of the 21st century must brush off the stigma attached to them for aiming to succeed in non-traditional roles and overcome the discrimination to open doors of opportunity.
Families and educational institutions who play a major role in shaping the thought process and mindset of an individual should also deliberately strive to cultivate in both young girls and boys a positive outlook towards women being ambitious and encourage girls into becoming critical thinkers, problem solvers and engaged global citizens.. With more awareness will come more women willing to accept and move forward, shrugging away stereotypical, baseless judgments and owning up their dreams to make it happen. Like Tony Burch, the enormously successful designer and owner of more than 65 retail stores under her label across the globe, told in an interview with CNBC, ‘There’s always a stigma attached to the word “ambition” and women. I’ve embraced it. Ambition is not just a word and women have to embrace that.’
However, embracing ambition at the personal level is not the ultimate answer in the long run to the issue of women securing their legitimate positions in general. For that to happen, the sine qua non is the successful democratic movement aimed at pervasive political, economic and cultural equality of men and women at every sphere — familial, social and national.
Nisha Sharmeen Ali is a senior subeditor at New Age.
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