Do It. Scare the Boys.

Curtis. Bless His Heart.

I had been in an organization for a few years when colleagues and managers began recommending that I aim to be promoted to the next rung up on the corporate ladder. During the prior eighteen months, headhunters had reached out to me in this vein, which motivated me to think about whether a shift to a more significant leadership role would be interesting. Could it provide the novelty and challenge that my current path might not offer? Taking on a broader leadership position was not something that interested me in the past. However, colleagues and leaders at my prior organization had made similar assertions. In those moments, I found their comments bewildering, and the thought that went through my mind in response was “Bleh. That sounds awful.” I liked the hands-on work I was doing and had little interest in a leadership role. However, the encouragement on this topic became frequent enough for me to consider whether they were seeing something in me that perhaps I did not see in myself. Thus, I began to ponder their commentary and more seriously contemplate a potential career shift.

Having not led a division before, I sought the counsel of my then-manager, Curtis, on the subject, and in particular what knowledge or skills he would recommend I work on over the next few years to be ready for such a promotion should I decide to move in that direction. I shared these thoughts and anecdotes with Curtis during a broader conversation one day. I knew Curtis would have unique and valuable insights about where and how I should strengthen my resume with that goal in mind. Further, while I was not convinced that I wanted to move up the ladder at that time, if I decided to pursue that path I wanted to be as prepared as possible. After I shared these thoughts and details, Curtis got very quiet and then said, “Be careful about being ambitious. Ambition can rub people the wrong way.” And with that, Curtis ended the conversation and the meeting was over. What the hell? Frankly, it took me a moment to process what had transpired. 

Ambition is having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed. Some suggest it is a deep wish to achieve something, while others characterize it as an intense desire for rank, fame, or power. My guess is that Curtis was thinking of the latter concept of ambition in his comment to me because heaven forbid a woman should strive for rank, fame, or power—Earth might just stop turning. Would he have said the same thing to a male leader on the team who requested advice or mentoring about pursuing a leadership position? Perhaps. However, he is ingrained in a profoundly patriarchal culture where women have very little to no power, and he had previously told two of the three women on my team that they would never be in a leadership role. 

Further, how often are men told to “be careful of rubbing someone the wrong way”? They aren’t. They may be called arrogant or egotistical, but the “rubbing the wrong way” phrase is generally reserved for women who desire—or DARE!—to move beyond the station that has been dictated to them by the patriarchy. Sadly, if Curtis had been curious rather than judgmental and explicitly discouraging, he would have learned about my interest in pursuing a more significant leadership position. He would have learned that I had zero desire for rank, fame, or power. Plus, if one wants rank, fame, or power, there are much better ways to gain them than by being a simple division leader of a moderate-sized organization.

Sadly, the notion that ambitious women are scary was not really on my radar, but this interaction with Curtis did trigger a vague memory from an interaction I’d had with a colleague at my prior organization. Frankly, I do not remember the context of the conversation, but I distinctly remember my male colleague’s comment: “Merideth, surely you know that you scare the boys.” I remember thinking later that day how silly that idea was. I was 5’5″ and 115 pounds. Me, scare anyone? Really? The idea just seemed ridiculous.

Ambitious Women Aren’t Intimidating. Others Are Intimidated.

Consider the experience of Katherine Switzer, who on April 19, 1967, dared to try to run the then-male-only Boston Marathon. An iconic but shocking photo of one moment in the race shows Jock Semple, a Boston Marathon official, trying to physically remove Switzer from the foot race. Switzer persisted and finished the marathon, yet it would be another five years before women’s participation in the race was officially sanctioned. The marathon was considered a man’s domain or world, and Switzer’s presence in the race threatened their role, status, and power in that field.

Perhaps female athletes encounter this type of treatment even more than the average woman. Consider the 2019 Nike ad that aired during the Oscars and featured Serena Williams. She notes, “If we show emotions, we’re called dramatic. If we want to play against men, we’re nuts. And if we dream of equal opportunity, delusional. When we stand for something, we’re unhinged. When we’re too good, there’s something wrong with us. And if we get angry, we’re hysterical, irrational or just being crazy. But a woman running a marathon was crazy. A woman boxing was crazy. A woman dunking, crazy. Coaching an NBA team, crazy. A woman competing in a hijab; changing her sport; landing a double-cork 1080; or winning 23 grand slams, having a baby, and then coming back for more, crazy, crazy, crazy, and crazy. So if they want to call you crazy, fine. Show them what crazy can do.” 

Think about the last time a man who was emotional by displaying anger or frustration, or who raised his voice, was called dramatic, hysterical, irrational, or crazy. I am guessing you cannot think of a single time. Actually, those who are criticizing a woman if she expresses anger or frustration may actually be the ones who are dramatic, hysterical, irrational, or crazy. Women are entitled to be emotional, to compete against men—and WIN—to dream of and pursue equality, to stand up for what they believe in and what is right, and to be damn good at what they do. If that threatens those around them, too damn bad. Men should be no more entitled to success, fame, power, emotion, health, and happiness than women are.

Workplaces That Encourage Ambitious Women (and Men)

While we are not going to solve the problem of misogyny (the issue underlying the notion that female ambition is off-putting) anytime soon if ever, there are opportunities for a woman to be her ambitious self with less fear of backlash at work. 

First, look for organizations that have an impressive number of female leaders at the helm, with 15 percent being the tipping point for making a difference in that respect. Be wary of organizations that appear to simply have a “token” woman on the leadership team. Perhaps more important, look at the gender ratio in any department you might join. If most of the junior members are women and it is mostly or all men in leadership roles, ask questions about what may be driving that disparity. You may gain multiple insights by inquiring about this fact. For instance, you may learn the backstory. Perhaps it is that the department has made an effort more recently toward gender balance, and that is a driver of the differential in job level or status. Or perhaps the department leader is not sure what factors may be driving it or in fact is cultivating a hostile work environment for women. In doing so, you may get a sense of a leader’s or interviewer’s perspective on the issue as well as the broader organizational culture. For example, upon asking about the gender ratio, does the person you are speaking with acknowledge the issue and discuss the specific actions being taken to address it? What attitude does the person exhibit? Are they humble about this fact? Or are they defensive and aggressive in response to your curiosity? Do they brush aside the issue and suggest it is unimportant or inevitable? The responses to your inquiry may provide you with insights critical to your decision about joining that organization and being a part of its culture or saying, “no thanks” and moving on to the next opportunity.

Second, set your sights on organizations that take their business processes seriously and aim to weed out procedures that allow or encourage implicit bias to creep in. One important factor is performance appraisal processes that are not annual and subjective but rather quarterly or even weekly and focused on objective criteria from multiple reviewers (e.g., not just by a supervisor or manager, but by one’s coworkers and clients). That sounds like a lot, but actually, that feedback can be gathered in about fifteen minutes per week. The result is that the process is less biased, and the employee receives more useful and real-time feedback. Look for organizations known for using recruitment and selection processes that aim, at least on the front end, to be gender-blind. For instance, a growing number of organizations remove names from job applications and resumes so a reviewer is not subconsciously biased against or toward a candidate based on their perceived gender. Also, seek out organizations that demonstrate an ability to retain high-performing women, as may be evidenced by how many women are in senior leadership positions for longer periods of time.

Third, seek out organizations that appear to acknowledge the unpaid “second shift” work that still predominantly falls to women when they return home after work. What programs or benefits does the organization offer that help manage family demands? On-site childcare is one. Another is the organization’s family leave policy, especially one that provides equal benefits to female and male parents, as this suggests a stronger gender equity mindset. If paid family leave is only available to female parents, that benefit is likely to be seen as used only by those who are more committed to their families, and thus those who use it are perceived as less committed to or engaged in their work life. Including men in these policies also indicates a culture or mindset that assumes men play an active role in parenting, and those responsibilities do not just fall to female parents. Talk to several people in the organization before you accept a job offer to ensure that equal family benefits are utilized by all genders.

Last, be mindful that your direct supervisor or manager will have a bigger impact on your satisfaction and happiness at work, and thus also on your life outside of work, than will the formal policies of the organization at large. While some organizations have progressive and supportive policies related to flextime and family leave, some supervisors may discourage the use of those programs by their subordinates. On the flip side, other managers will go out of their way to support the use of these policies as well as your ambition. 

I had one such manager, Jeff Shearer, during my five years at Deloitte. Unbeknownst to me, an opportunity to work on a project in Sydney, Australia, had arisen, and I was considered for the gig. Jeff knew I had a preschooler at home and initially considered not offering me the opportunity since he wasn’t sure I would want to be away from my son for several weeks at a time. However, as he would later recount to me, he decided that it was not up to him to make that call; rather, it was up to me to make decisions related to balancing my career and my role as a parent. I spent a few weeks working in Sydney during the summer of 1999, and that opportunity changed how I thought about my career, international travel—being my second international trip and my first excursion traveling solo—and what I was capable of. Truth be told, it was hard to be away from my son, but the experience opened my eyes to opportunities that had not previously been clear to me. The expansion of my perspective and horizons might not have happened or would have happened later if not for the equity mindset and lack of benevolent sexism of my manager.

Bottom line: Ambitious women are not scary. Ambitious women are not intimidating. Those who fear or who feel insecure around ambitious women are intimidated. There’s a difference. Own your ambition. It’s not your job to make others comfortable. Seek out a work environment where your ambition won’t just be supported but encouraged and celebrated.

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Merideth Thompson

Merideth Thompson, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and speaker, who empowers young women with the skills they need to live a happy, productive life. It is her goal to demystify dense academic studies and data for everyday people so that they can make informed decisions for themselves. 


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