When I was 13, I decided that by the time I was 30, I would be editor of The Guardian. You’ll probably be unsurprised to hear that I’m 31 and not the editor of The Guardian. But I have no doubt that I’m where I’m supposed to be. And that I got here through a series of coincidences and decisions that followed my ambitious teenage dream.
I have always been ambitious. I always wanted to be the best – at school, at work, at pub quizzes. I like to think I’ve always hidden this ambitious drive well. Because it seems that ambition is somewhat unbecoming of a lady.
From a young age, there are pressures on boys to become the top dog, the alpha male – the CEO; while so often girls are taught to think in pink and that ‘running like a girl’ is something to be laughed at; and that as Germaine Greer writes in The Whole Woman that: “Every woman knows that regardless of all her achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.”
Ambition is not a game that girls are supposed to play and more often than not we feel a pressure to make ourselves smaller for fear of intimidating anyone with the scale of said ambition.
Last year, a report by Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Company revealed that at the start of a new career or job, women are much more ambitions than men. Around 43 per cent said they aspired to reach a top management position, compared to 34 per cent of men.
Revisit these ambitious women just two years later and it seems their confidence has been knocked, with just 16 per cent saying they want to become top managers, while men’s ambitions increase to 34 per cent. According to the report writers, this isn’t just about that same old story/myth of women having to choose between a career and family. Instead, author Julie Coffman said the reason is that “they don’t feel supported by their supervisors and they have a hard time fitting into stereotypes of success within the company”.
She added: “Those that stopped aspiring for top jobs said they don’t see themselves in those roles. That feeling ate away at their aspirations to make it.”
Similarly, Marie Wilson of the White House Project once said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In a US survey, it was revealed that at seven years old, the same number of boys say they want to be president when they grow up as girls. But by the time they’re teenagers, the girls lower their expectations to something deemed more appropriate as if their inner voice was reminding them that of the seeming reality that girls just don’t get to be the president.
I’m not saying however that ambition is inherently a good thing. In Philippians 2:3, we’re told to: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value other above yourselves.” And in Mark 3, Jesus responds to his friends James and John’s request to get the top spots in heaven by saying that it’s not about being great, but about serving.
This is counter-cultural stuff. As women, it’s so easy for us to respond to the negative narratives that pervade our society by striving for the top spots and the top jobs to prove people wrong and to say ‘this girl can!’ But as Christian women, yes, we need to silence the imposter syndrome that says we can’t achieve what the boys can; because imposter syndrome doesn’t help anyone. But we also need to be humble in our quest to achieve. Why do we want to get that promotion? Why do we want to be the best? Why do we want to be the editor of The Guardian?
Time and time again, the Bible says ambition is a good thing – but it’s generally ambition towards the things of the kingdom of God. Things like hungering and thirsting after righteousness, making it our ambition to lead a quiet life, striving for spiritual gifts, running to win the prize of an “imperishable gift”.
So should we give up our efforts to achieve our ambitions, to be the best teachers, CEOs, church leaders, musicians that we can possibly be?
I asked my friend Kate Coleman, author of The Seven Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership, and she told me this: “I think God wants us to be ‘ambitious’ about anything and everything that progresses his kingdom purposes. Since that pretty much encompasses all of life, It leaves nothing out, whether that means climbing the career ladder or laying stuff down, whichever we’re led to do. The important part is knowing where God wants us and being prepared to step up to the challenge.”
This article is part of a special series commissioned by guest editor Claire Rush to celebrate and remember International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.