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My struggle to embrace being an ambitious woman

by Stephanie Mitton Have you ever been called ambitious? How did it make you feel? My colleagues have described me as ambitious throughout my career, and if I am honest, it bothers me. Being seen as someone who wants to be successful, powerful or famous makes me uncomfortable, and I dislike being perceived that way. I prefer to think of myself as driven by a desire to achieve results, work hard, learn new things, do something meaningful, and be the best that I can be.

It has been a difficult journey to accept that this is part of who I am. Maybe my faith-based upbringing that people should be humble plays a role. Perhaps societal messages that women should not be ambitious causes me to be concerned about how I am perceived. Even in my thirties, I still struggle with this idea of being an ambitious woman, and I wonder if I would feel so conflicted if I were a man.

Women, especially mothers, can struggle with the idea of being ambitious for a number of reasons. Ambition in men is almost universally seen as an asset, but for women it can be perceived as a liability. Marianne Cooper, sociologist and lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s, Lean In, says that women “are applauded for delivering results at work but then reprimanded for being “too aggressive,” “out for herself,” “difficult,” and “abrasive.”

My experience in politics taught me a lot about my own ambition and how it can be perceived. A number of voters did not want to support a woman candidate, and one woman told me that I should not describe myself as tenacious because it wasn’t “feminine enough.” You can read more about that here. But putting my name forward as a possible candidate for office also required me to lean in to my ambition and recognize it as the true asset that it is. I’ve written before about the importance of authentic women in leadership and about modelling for our children that they can do anything. Although I still struggle with fully accepting the “ambitious” label, I know that trying to contain my inner drive to achieve goals and succeed is to deny an important part of who I am.

This week's podcast guest is lawyer, entrepreneur and mother Sara Forte; who spoke to me about her relationship with ambition, “When my kids were younger I tried to keep my ambition in check. I felt like ambition was the enemy and if I let it out of the box it would take me somewhere I didn’t want to go... I wanted to stay focused on parenting… It’s been fun though letting the beast out of the box and seeing where it took me and fun to see too that my kids... they understand what I am doing and they are learning from that and excited about that.”

Sara Forte smiling with hand on hip.
This week's guest on WDDT, lawyer Sara Forte.

Sara goes on to share that eventually, she realized that she no longer wanted to hold back, and decided to open her own law firm. She embraced her ambition and entrepreneurial spirit and it is helping her live her best life. Like Sara, keeping my ambition in check is getting harder and harder. I have felt entrepreneurial for a long time, but had no outlet. I have struggled internally with hierarchical structures and limits on my creativity. As I have embraced my ambition by running for politics, working at a startup not-for-profit and co-founding WDDT, I have begun to release the beast.

Today, I am getting more comfortable owning that this is who I am. God made me this way for a reason and I should lean in. I am excited to see where my story leads as I slowly embrace where I am at on my journey, which feels like only the beginning. I am loving feeling more like myself and using my skills and talents in a way that is very fulfilling for myself and helps others.

Right now, the Women Deliver conference is taking place in Vancouver, Canada. Which is the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women. This year’s theme focuses on power, and how it can drive – or hinder – progress and change. Women owning their voice and who they are is powerful. What if we leaned into ourselves? What would be possible? And what do we and society miss out on when we don’t? Let’s ensure we don’t miss out on the next Prime Minister or the person who cures lyme disease because we are afraid to be ambitious. If we lean into ourselves, regardless of where we are in life, at home or in the workforce, I believe amazing things can happen.

I would love to hear how you navigate your ambition. Do you feel like you don’t have enough or too much? Please leave us a comment. I hope as you embrace who you are, you find the best way to do you. We are in this together!

“I’m totally unapologetic about being an ambitious woman, and you should be, too.”

—Shinjini Das

To hear more, listen to my interview with Sara.

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