Since my book was published (Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead), I’ve been talking to lots of corporate, professional and community women’s groups. Each time I ask women in the audience how they define an ambitious woman. The answers are always insightful and interesting…and they run counter to the prevailing “Lean In” buzz that assumes that every ambitious woman has the ultimate goal of getting to the very top of business or government.
Not so. Lots of smart, talented and ambitious women who often have two other big jobs—caring for children and aging parents—don’t have the personal bandwidth for uber senior-level roles that require their 24/7 attention. But that doesn’t mean that these women are not ambitious. They still strive to find ways to continually expand their portfolio of skills and expertise—without taking on that next big role. Lots of really impressive women want to lean “in-between” or “grow in place” while family pressures are high. This extends to the entrepreneurial world too—where there can be similar judgments that “ambitious” women are only the ones raising huge amounts of capital and building companies that can be exponentially scaled and sold.
Limited views about who really is an ambitious woman are far less prevalent in the everyday sisterhood. Case in point: at a recent keynote presentation to 100 women at a major corporation during a women’s career empowerment week, I asked “how many are aiming for senior executive roles?” In the room were women at all levels, at all ages and in many different job functions. Only one woman raised her hand.
Similarly, in a survey of 200 women before another corporate presentation, only 17% said that they have very senior-level aspirations. Even more eye-opening was the fact that 33% of these women said that they seriously consider taking a career break for family reasons (a decision that has a big pricetag—a woman forfeits up to four times her salary every year out).
In my coaching practice I find that even the most seemingly driven women second-guess high-flying careers in the context of family responsibilities. What it boils down to in most cases is that women want the freedom to develop their own brand of ambition and success—without fear of being branded a “lightweight” or guilt about letting down the sisterhood. If women have the courage to speak up more authentically about their career aspirations, they’ll find many other women who share their views.
This was evident during my presentation this week to the Hartford, CT chapter of the Women in Pensions Network (WiPN). Acceptance for the diversity of ambition was alive and well. Here are some simple but powerful ways attendees described an ambitious woman:
- A woman who is a lifelong learner and seeker of change and knowledge to bring improvement around her—to herself, her family, her friends and her colleagues.
- A woman who is decisive and in control of her time and money—and makes wise decisions.
- A woman who coaches and mentors others to be better. A big thinker.
- A woman who knows what she wants and goes for it. Once that goal is met, she has another one. She doesn’t take “no” for an answer. She has a clearly defined strategy and can effectively communicate it.
- A high-energy woman who is driven to succeed in her own way. She is constantly learning and willing to take risks. She’s a mentor to others and highly collaborative—and blends work with family, personal needs and contributions to the community.
- A woman who wants to grow as an individual.
- A woman who is goal-oriented, a self-starter— and a go getter with a “can do” attitude.
- A woman who goes beyond her comfort zone.
- A woman who asks for what she wants, is non-apologetic, values herself and is confident enough to say “no”.
- Any woman who manages to have a career and a family—in any industry and with any job description.
No mention of the C-Suite. No narrow definition of only women who are always looking to climb the corporate ladder. Clearly, these women believe, as I do, that in the quest for long-term financial security for ourselves and our families, the only way forward for women is not up!
In the photo above I’m in the center with the Women in Pension Network Hartford Co-Chairs Lisa Buffington (right) and Ariel Stein (left).