When I was young (too young to be watching 18-rated films), I watched a pirated VHS copy of In Bed With Madonna, the singer’s controversial (sex! Religion! Kevin Costner!) documentary that followed her early 1990s Blond Ambition tour.
My main takeaway – besides the conical bras and a trick with a water bottle that I didn’t quite get the full implications of at that age – was that I decided I really wanted to be one of her two female back-up dancers. I thought Madonna was incredible, but it seemed a bit much to aim to actually be her. I remember thinking that a dancer seemed more realistic (I know, I know – but I was young and a few jazz-tap lessons swiftly corrected me on that one). It was the next best thing, I thought.
This, my first-ever career goal, was extremely fleeting. But, looking back now, I see the irony of watching a film about a tour – and a woman – that celebrated ambition, from its very name to its sheer scale, while thinking I probably shouldn’t be aiming for the top job.
From the start, Madonna was always unashamed about her ambition and, as a result, was relentlessly scrutinised, criticised and mauled. She’s acutely aware of how her intense drive is perceived, once saying: “I'm tough, I'm ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, OK.”
Maybe even at that age, those messages about ambition being an off-putting quality in women had already started to seep in. Or, perhaps, it was simply an earlier indicator of what I’ve recently realised to be true: I never had any desire to reach the top.
The subject of female ambition has come to the fore again recently with the publication of Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened, which addresses how her intense drive and focus – and the public’s issue with it – was part of her downfall. “A young woman, or a woman of any age, to be ambitious raises all kinds of dissonance in people's minds,” she said in an interview.
There’s long been a notion that ambition is seen as “a dirty word” in relation to women. Yet, at the same time, perhaps precisely because of this, there’s also been immense pushback against the idea that women shouldn’t have grand goals.
Four years ago, Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, encouraged women to grab opportunities to advance their careers. Earlier this year, the designer Tory Burch launched her Embrace Ambition initiative, complete with celebrity supporters and Ambition Guidebook (Step One: Dream!). And Reese Witherspoon recently wrote a rallying essay on the subject for US Glamour, where she implored women to help ambition shed its “ugly” image.
We’re frequently told that, as women, we are having our ambition thwarted, or are sitting on it in shame. Instead, we need to own it, embrace it, chase it. But… what if some of us aren’t hiding it? What if it’s not actually there? “What the heck is wrong with being ambitious?” says Reese Witherspoon. Nothing, Reese! I’m with you. But also: what the heck is wrong with not being ambitious? And does it matter if you aren’t? “Women need to stop apologising for their ambition,” says Reese. But sometimes, it feels like we have to make excuses for a lack of it, too.
When nearly every magazine is telling you how to snag that promotion, launch your start-up, dress like a boss or make your first million, there can feel a kind of shame in admitting you don’t actually want any of that.
In the age of influencers, portfolio careers and Beyoncé, being satisfied with an "OK" career feels like the wrong thing to say – like you're admitting defeat, letting the side down or that you're just not good enough.
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the past two years, since I left London – a temporary move that became permanent when I realised I was happier out of the city. In leaving the capital, where much of the industry in which I work is based, I knew I was saying goodbye to certain career opportunities. As a freelance writer, I can work anywhere, but I’m also in a kind of in a career cul-de-sac. I’ve turned my back on the world of performance reviews and promotions, the chance to advance my career and accrue increasingly fancier-sounding job titles – not to mention power dressing (which I am kind of annoyed about to be honest, as I bloody love pencil skirts – a collection of them now hang forlornly in my wardrobe).
Yes, I can advance my career in other ways: try to write a book, a script, start a blog. But, most of the time, rather than stressing over my next career move, I’d rather just take the dog for a walk, have a bath or watch Mad Men (again). Is that wrong? It sometimes feels it – especially for a feminist.
Stepping off the career ladder bothered me a bit at first, partly because I’d experienced some of that shine that comes with certain job titles – the extra attention and emails, the fancy invites. You just seem more visible to people. But also because I’ve been conditioned to think that’s what you’re meant to want – to keep on moving up, getting more – regardless of whether it actually makes you happy.
Katie, who is in her twenties and works in PR, also feels like she’s supposed to want more than she does from her career. “I feel a lot of pressure to act as if I am ambitious, even though I’m not,” she tells me. “It’s the presumed ‘normal’ for people to be ambitious, so everything is catered towards this. Every meeting I have with my line manager is setting these objectives to help me get promoted, even though I’ve never said to them that I’m interested in getting another promotion. It can be quite difficult in jobs, as a lot of organisations have a culture of continually encouraging people to push themselves and move upwards, which I totally understand.”
Our identities feel so wrapped up in what we do for a living. But our jobs aren’t us – they’re just a part of who we are
In one previous job, she turned down the chance of a promotion because she was happy with what she was already doing. “My boss was quite baffled and mistakenly attributed it to a lack of self-confidence,” she says. “But I associate promotions with increased pressure and higher stakes, and I’m more than happy with feeling anchored in calm waters.”
I asked some of my friends to see how they viewed ambition. One says hers comes in waves – she’ll have a year of not feeling driven at all, then suddenly a goal she wants to achieve. But, despite achieving a lot in her writing career, the barrage of “how to get to the top” messaging can still make her feel a failure. “It’s like, if you’re not a CEO, you can f*ck off.”
Another friend from university loves her job, does important work, but has no desire to move up right now. “I am happy with my job and would not swap happiness for a promotion,” she says. “That doesn't mean I'm not passionate. Those who stay in the same job seem to be viewed as a bit sad, maybe even lazy. It’s frustrating.”
But how much free will do we really have over our ambition? Are we rejecting that life because we don’t want it – or because we know we might not get it anyway?
A recent, widely shared article in New York magazine The Cut argued that a generation of ambitious 30-year-olds, weaned on Lean In, had been sold “another bullshit promise”: that the idea we can do whatever we want at work is as much of a con as the domestic-bliss model of yesteryear. It argued that many believe the scraps of success they get just aren’t worth the battle, hence the ambition gap. “The myth of female empowerment has always been on a collision course with the reality,” writes the author, Lisa Miller.
Research backs this up: a study published earlier this year found that women are just as ambitious as men at the start of their careers. It’s only once they reach their thirties that ambition erodes faster in women, especially in the least gender-diverse companies, where the ambition gap between men and women is 17 per cent.
Michelle Ryan is a professor of social and organisational psychology at the University of Exeter, who researches the factors that influence women’s ambition. “What we show is this drop-in ambition is really related to whether you expect to succeed, whether you feel like you fit in, whether you’ve got role models and those sort of aspects; so they’re really contextual, rather than being inmate or fundamental,” she tells me.
However, Ryan also recognises that there are individual differences in ambition, too. “If everyone wanted to be at the top, that would be a disaster, because clearly not everyone can be. But because there’s a demonstrable issue with women’s ambition being kind of stymied, the obvious response to that is to try and encourage more women to be ambitious.” The downside? “Then you’ve got women who, perhaps, aren’t ambitious – who feel like they’re letting the side down,” she says.
According to Ryan, by calling on all women to be more ambitious, we’re missing the point. “Instead of trying to fix the barriers and changing the things that might be stymying ambition, we try to fix women and make them more ambitious. And then we end up making a lot of women feel guilty, which is not particularly productive,” she explains.
The idea that it’s just ourselves holding us back is problematic in other respects, too. In a 2015 YouGov survey it was revealed that 62 per cent of BAME women wanted to progress at work – compared with just 37 per cent of white women. Yet only one in 13 BAME workers are in a management position and just one in 16 in a leadership role.
And if you do get the opportunities to progress, turning down a promotion is only a choice if you already earn enough to support yourself and your family.
For me, the uglier side of the Lean In culture has always been the implicit assumption that only certain jobs “matter”. As someone who grew up with parents who had jobs, rather than careers, and who both worked incredibly hard just to pay the bills, not get a promotion, I’m aware how lucky I am to have pursued a profession that I really wanted to do. Because it is a huge privilege to have options in your career – something well-meaning calls for us all to “own our ambition” can often overlook.
Shows like The X Factor – where every teacher, nurse, or dinner lady is just killing time until they can pursue their real dream of reaching number 23 in the Christmas charts – have pushed the idea that we should all be following big dreams. But, as one friend of mine says: “What’s wrong with being a really good waitress your whole life, if that’s what makes you content? Why is it always assumed you’re biding your time before something else?”
That common signifier of small talk – “What do you do?” – feels like such a loaded question. It’s as if it tells someone all they need to know about us. Our identities feel so wrapped up in what we do for a living. But our jobs aren’t us – they’re just a part of who we are.
Maybe it’s not even that I’m less ambitious than others. Maybe it’ just that my goals look different. Why does ambition so often have to come dressed in a power suit, with long hours, a fancy title and a big office? Simply defined, it’s about having a wish and pursuing it. For some, that’s reaching the height of their profession, with all the power, prestige and money that might come with that — and if it is, you should be able to do that, without your class, gender or race holding you back. For others, it’s about doing something that makes a difference to people’s lives or affects change.
But if your goal is to have a job you enjoy but that you can forget about at 5pm each day – so you can see your friends, swim in the sea, learn Japanese, read all the books to want to, indulge your love of Siberian folk music or whatever – that’s fine, too. Who says ambition just has to be about work, anyway?