Ambition Is Not a Simple Thing – a Conversation With The New York Women’s Foundation’s Ana Oliveira

Mar 6, 2020 3:45 PM ET

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On March 8th, individuals around the world – of all genders – will come together to celebrate International Women’s Day. Since the first gathering, held over a century ago, leaders have made great progress in driving gender equality. But, we still have work to do to continue advocating for women’s advancement around the world.

Ahead of the day, The New York Women’s Foundation and American Express partnered together to commission external research, Ambitious Insightswhich looks at women’s relationships with ambition, globally. It found what many women already feel - ambition is not a simple thing. Strikingly, the majority of respondents consider themselves to be ambitious, however only three-in-ten (31%) women overall say they are proud to call themselves “ambitious” publicly.

I sat down with Ana Oliveira, president of The New York Women’s Foundation, to shed light on the findings and share her perspective on what it means to be an ambitious woman.

“For many of the respondents, their hesitation to describe themselves this way stems from very real barriers they have in reaching their goals, and certainly not from a lack of desire or drive to achieve,” said Oliveira, noting that the study found that rather than be called ambitious, most women prefer to be described as “motivated” or “confident,” with “likeability” in the workplace for women often viewed more positively than “assertiveness” or “competitiveness.” 

Aside from the stigma associated with ambition, according to the study, confidence plays a key role in women’s actions in the workplace. Half of the respondents say they are confident in having the skills and qualifications to effectively perform their job. But, many report that they do not feel comfortable sharing their opinions or seeking out leadership opportunities.

When considering ambition and confidence, Oliveira believes women can and do have both confidence and ambition. But to her, the real question is, “How can we as leaders provide women with the space and opportunity to live self-determined, secure and successful lives?”

The study further outlines, what many already know, that women’s ambition spans many dimensions. Most women not only aspire to have successful careers, but want financial independence, to be great parents and so much more.

To Oliveira this wasn’t a surprise, “For women, the connections between their personal and professional lives are clear. Women hold the unique and too-often burdensome responsibility of both raising and providing for their own families. Beyond this, women of color and immigrant women are also more likely to be the primary or sole providers for their family.”

In asking Oliveira how we can put the findings of the study into practice, she says, “It’s our responsibility as leaders – of all genders and levels – to lighten this load for women and create workplaces that are supportive of their well-being and economic security. When we support the leadership of women, and especially for women of color who face unique barriers, our workplaces and communities at large are greatly enhanced.”

Oliveira would like to see leaders be ambitious for their colleagues by investing in the growth, advancement and personal well-being of the women on their teams and in their networks. “One of the most striking findings of the report was that less than one-third of the women surveyed have had someone advocate for them in their career,” said Oliveira. “So, on this International Women’s Day and beyond, be that advocate!”  

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

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