Women Have Reclaimed Ambition—Now, Let’s Reframe It

Author, CEO, and lawyer Meena Harris explains why the word "ambitious" may no longer serve the women who seek it out.

side by side images of a woman working and a woman smiiling
(Image credit: Future)

Growing up, my family taught me to be ambitious; to live life with courage and conviction, to work hard, fight challenges, and celebrate wins. I wasn’t the only one raised this way: a 2022 survey found that nearly half of American women consider themselves “very ambitious.”

Not even 20 years ago, Harvard Business Review published articles like “Do Women Lack Ambition,” while some researchers suggested that differences in how men and women solicit acknowledgment, pursue goals, and respond to praise in the workplace are simply innate.

But by 2012, the script had been flipped, with Pew Research finding that “Women Are Now More Ambitious Than Men”—at least, as measured by commitment to a career. But as more prominent women sought aspirational goals, people stopped asking whether women lacked ambition, and started asking if they had too much of it. To this day, per studies, ambitious men are perceived as powerful, whereas ambitious women are dismissed as power-hungry.

And so—like so many words used against us—women have reclaimed ambition as our own: not only using the word to describe ourselves, but running on it, and wearing the word on our sleeves (figuratively and literally).

Yet despite our self-identified ambition, women aren’t feeling much more fulfilled, supported, or even successful for it. In the past year, women—especially women of color—reported higher levels of stress and burnout, continued harassment and microaggressions at work, and inflexible working policies. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more people quit their jobs in the second half of 2021 than ever documented; women are disproportionately represented in that figure, a phenomenon economists credit, at least in part, to lack of fulfillment in our careers.

So, if the last decade saw women reclaim ambition, perhaps this might be the moment for us to reframe it—because if the “very ambitious” turn out to also be “very exhausted,” there may be limits to the value of the term as we know it. 

If the 'very ambitious' turn out to also be 'very exhausted,' there may be limits to the value of the term as we know it.

The problem is, society hasn’t quite caught up with women’s ambitions about ambition. Culturally, women remain in an impossible double bind: if our ambition is career-driven, we’re seen as bossy; if our ambition is family-driven, we’re viewed as unmotivated; if our ambition is to pursue a career and a family, we’re uncommitted to either. Black women face greater stigma—one 2022 study found that Black women leaders were more likely than other women to want to be top executives—but less likely to actually hold those positions.

Policy hasn’t caught up, either. Women still lack resources—from paid leave to childcare to abortion rights—to achieve our goals without making serious sacrifices. Serena Williams put it best in describing her choice to retire from tennis to focus on her family: “If I were a guy,” she explained, “I wouldn't be writing this because I'd be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family.” It’s a sentiment shared not only by fellow athletes, but workers everywhere: women are tasked with the impossible burden of knocking down structural barriers on an individual basis.

I’m all for kicking over hurdles and shattering glass ceilings. But there must be a better way for women to achieve our ambitions without losing ourselves. That’s why I believe it’s time to redefine ambition. It shouldn’t just be about doing our best, but feeling our best; achieving a sense of self-worth and self-satisfaction, whether by focusing on our careers, our families, or God forbid, ourselves. 

In her book All the Gold Stars: Reimagining Ambition and the Ways We Strive, Rainesford Stauffer argues that shifting away from career as the barometer of self-worth can help us tackle feelings of scarcity, anxiety, and loneliness; that meaningful ambition can bring us closer to what we love. In a recent interview, Stauffer shared how she emerged from her struggles with ambition and burnout: “What saved me was not taking on one more project. It was not striving, it was not working a little harder. Honestly, it wasn’t even doing work that felt personally fulfilling. It was other people.”

Of course, it’s one thing to tell ourselves we don’t need to hustle and grind our way into happiness; it’s another to put it into practice. I’m fortunate; my family never put undue pressure on me to pursue a career that fit some narrow definition of success. I became a lawyer anyway—whoops—but I eventually felt empowered to step off of the corporate treadmill and pursue my own venture on my own terms. In doing so, I’ve tried my best to create a space for self-realization and self-actualization for other women, too.

Obviously, reframing ambition will look different for any given woman. But each of us can start by acknowledging that contentment and camaraderie are just as ambitious a pursuit as any career—and that there’s just as much to gain looking in, and looking out, as looking up.

Harris's new children's book "A Is for Ambitious" is on sale now. 

Meena Harris

Meena Harris is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and New York Times bestselling author. In 2017 she founded Phenomenal, a female-powered brand that brings awareness to social causes. She currently resides in San Francisco with her partner and two daughters.