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Ambitious, Individualistic, Competitive: Redefining The Dirty Words


“At the 2015 Glamour Women of the Year Awards, Reese Witherspoon proclaimed, “I believe ‘ambition’ is not a dirty word.” Her powerful speech went viral, and it became, as Oprah puts it, “a call to arms for women in all walks of life.” “We need to start talking about and reframing this word, ‘ambition,’ because it isn’t about being selfish. It isn’t about being self-serving,” Reese says. “An ambitious woman is not a terrifying thing.” –Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations

There’s a famous psychological measure of femininity, masculinity and androgyny known as the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI). This test lists masculine, feminine, and neutral traits – 20 of each. Subjects use these traits to rate themselves. Stanford University students, in the ’70s, were asked to rank the desirability of these traits for women in American society. The winners:? yielding; loyal; cheerful; compassionate; shy; sympathetic; affectionate; sensitive to the needs of others; flatter-able; understanding; eager to soothe hurt feelings; soft-spoken; warm; tender; gullible; childlike; does not use harsh language; loves children; gentle, and (somewhat redundantly) femininity.
Did anyone else just feel a little queasy and maybe a little guilty? I know I did. All of the descriptors are tied to a relationship to someone else, in addition to, providing another person with support – of some kind.
By contrast, men were described as: self-reliant; strong personality; forceful; independent; analytical; defends one’s beliefs; athletic; assertive; has leadership abilities; willing to take risks; makes decisions easily; self-sufficient; dominant; willing to take a stand; aggressive; acts as a leader; individualistic; competitive; ambitious.
The actual word ‘individualistic’ shows up. I know this study was conducted a long, long time ago. And, I know many, many women who embody and exude 1970-male characteristics today. This is a fantastic improvement; however, most women I know have just ‘added’ the male traits to their list as opposed to ‘replacing’ them. We still identify as nurturers.
As recent as 2004, psychiatrist Anna Fels interviewed a number of women for her book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. She found that none of the women interviewed would admit to being ambitious. The word ‘ambition’ was described as selfishness and manipulation. Thirty-four years later and not much improvement seemingly had been made.
Ambition, for many of us, is ‘dressed-up’ in the 70s cloak of serving others. We qualify our ambitions, hiding our true intent. Phrases such as; “I’ve been lucky; or It’s about my customers or clients, it’s not about me.” are at the ready when we talk about what we’re pursuing.
Our younger sisters are facing some bigger trade-offs. As the Reese Witherspoons and Mindy Kalings (both under 45), of the world, espouse the virtues of admitting ambition and pursuing dreams; men are being forced to play ‘catch-up’. In some cases, men are still struggling with women who bring home bigger paychecks or are crushing it at work. Some younger women fear that there may be a ‘trade-off ‘to make: man or ambition. As we age, we realize that taming ambition may land you a man, but if you suppress your own big vision for accomplishment, there’s a strong chance you won’t be satisfied for long.
Personally, I have never been more comfortable vocalizing my ambition than after turning 50. Having the conversation bubble up in the media; helping to reframe words like ambition, competitiveness, and individualism – well, that’s icing on the cake for me.

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