Ambition is the energy that enables us to reach the top of our own A-list, the energy we use to live up to our potential. Ambition comes from within. It is rooted in strong confidence and solid values, but it can’t exist in isolation; it is strengthened and elevated thanks to the contributions of those around us, those who believe in us. Our network and allies.
When we decided to undertake this major process of reflection about female ambition, we hoped first and foremost to understand how it had evolved in recent years. After all, since the launch of The A Effect in 2015, the world has lived through many upheavals. Social and political movements, a worldwide pandemic, and the arrival of a new generation on the job market have transformed the social, political, and professional landscape. Inevitably, this has affected the working world. And women too. As we took the pulse of our community, something became evident: we needed to revisit the concept of ambition, understand how this driving force – that allows people to get out of their comfort zone, break from the status quo, and rethink the world, on a small and large scale – had been modulated by new realities.
Motivated by our mission of helping women achieve their goals and supporting organizations in their efforts to propel female talent, we needed to review our own data and study the scholarly literature. Here’s a summary of our analysis.
Female ambition in a new light
According to numerous studies, the initial definition of ambition, the one adopted by numerous researchers and companies, can be traced back to Timothy A. Judge and John D. Kammeyer-Mueller, authors of the article “Job Attitudes” in the Annual Review of Psychology. In 2012, the two authors provided the basis for a definition that seems to fit ambition: “The persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment.”
This definition is now receiving criticism. Inspired by a unilateral view of ambition, it no longer suits today’s overall more holistic view. According to researchers Charlotte Harman and Ruth Sealy, authors of the study Opt-in or opt-out: Exploring how women construe their ambition at early career stages (2018), “These results suggest the traditional definition of ambition, associated with a desire for promotion and recognition, is biased towards male versions of success.” This conclusion puts into perspective the lack of research and information that, for years, failed to take other realities, especially women’s, into account in the job market.
But much has changed: there is better-documented research. For several years now, there has been a growing interest in female ambition. The result: in our research and reading, we discovered powerful, holistic female ambition imbued with a desire to contribute to something great. Ambition that is separate from that classic definition focussed mainly on professional success. We discovered ambition that, to withstand adversity – as professional women still face many obstacles –, needs to be supported by specific foundations: strong self-confidence, solid values, and a necessary support network.
Self-confidence: without it, nothing is possible
Self-confidence (or more specifically self-efficacy), is the primary foundation. A vital component of ambition, self-confidence takes us from intention to action. It grows through contact with a validating social circle, and is consolidated thanks to risk-taking and successes – large and small. A person with self-confidence has that essential ability to step back and put into perspective the expectations placed on them and their own ability to meet them. The result: a confident person is better positioned to minimize doubt and work at peak performance levels. What’s more, when a woman is self-confident, she is better able to overcome adversity and make progress in a male-dominated environment. A royal road to self-realization, you might say! The problem: women’s self-confidence levels are relatively low. And this is true all over the world.
Values: putting your ambition to work for your convictions
The influence of personal values in the achievement of goals is no longer a secret. But as we emerge from this global crisis that forced many to rethink their priorities – especially women – and with the mass arrival on the job market of a new generation with deep-rooted convictions, the importance of aligning personal values and corporate culture is of crucial significance. For women driven by a desire to contribute to something with meaning, something great, ambition takes on a more “personal” form – closer to family and to individual values.
Support network: the allies that make all the difference
Many studies show the importance of a support network for ambitious women who wish to reach decision-making positions. If, at the root of everything, having a strong family environment helps build young girls’ self-confidence, then having a life partner who steps up lets ambitious women lighten the load that still falls to them far too often. Beyond the family unit, having a network with an inner circle of women they trust allows women to better position themselves professionally. If, in addition to this, an ambitious woman works for an inclusive organization that is aware of the obstacles she faces and implements concrete solutions to allow her to achieve her aspirations, her chances increase tenfold. Something to think about…