Posted by: kaylawalling | February 11, 2016

Ambition and Success

BBC Radio hosts Woman’s Hour which features prominent and powerful women in the UK who discuss various topics. One show entitled “How to be a Powerful Woman” discussed leadership, resiliency, connections, and ambition. I chose a shorter clip from the broadcast, the video regarding ambition. I feel that many of the women say something very similar to the things we’ve been reading about including gender expectations, confidence levels, and the implication that ambition is bad.

Jude Kelly OBE states, “I think women are told ambition is not an attractive quality and doesn’t relate to being feminine and I think that’s garbage and unhealthy to encourage in young people.” She speaks right to the heart of soft-selling ambition. Women hide their ambition because they’re not expected to be ambitious. They’re not expected to be confident and many of the women express that they were not! Successful women with honors and titles, one right after the other say they weren’t confident. Liz Bingham worried that she was going to be “found out” as though she was not qualified to be there.

Many women soft-sell themselves only to realize they ARE competent and capable. Rosemary Squire OBE notes that she can be confident in her idea but not in herself and I think that disconnect is upsetting. She is successful. She is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)! And yet, she does not consider herself the most confident person.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, who started an all-woman company in the 60s, speaks in a TED talk about her own ambition and how she refuses to sell herself short although she did use a man’s name to get in the door. She advocates for powerful women and she says that you can always tell who they are because their heads are flat “from being patted patronizingly.” She adds they also have “larger feet to stand away from the kitchen sink.” Dame Shirley offers the reasons for women to show their ambition and not soft-sell. She is a powerful role model; her ambition is changing lives and expectations.

Be like Dame Shirley- show your ambition and let your head be flattened. It only means you’re succeeding.


  1. It’s such a shame that we have had to grow up in a society that makes its women feel this way. I couldn’t imagine what it most have been like way back when. I’m so excited for the day that women no longer feel like they have to hold back their talents and their greatness. I feel like that day will be here soon. Just think of how much the world has grown in such a short time. When all of the people in this world learn to recognize each other as equals and stop holding back each others potentials, we will accomplish amazing things.

  2. I think the soft selling ambition ties directly into the impostor syndrome that so many women feel in their leadership positions. I can’t quite understand where this originated- maybe it came from the history of societies that told women that they had certain characteristics as a gender that were not conducive to being successful in leadership positions. Because women have heard this for so many generations, and because they are often one of only a few women leaders in their field, they feel as if they don’t belong. I think because they feel like they don’t belong, they can not be confident in their skills, causing them to soft sell their ambition. It doesn’t help at all that they will be “patted on the head” by those around them when they share their ambitious plans. It is hard to overcome, and hard to fight back against, when you yourself also feel as though you are inadequate. One may say that it is just a change in mindset, you just have to tell yourself that you are a smart, powerful, woman that can succeed, but unfortunately, it is not that easy to do.

  3. Women, although they have not reached equality, have come a long way over the past century. I can only imagine how difficult it was to be an ambitious women in the early 1900’s or even the 1960’s when Dame Stephanie Shirley started an entirely female company. The world needs more ambitious and powerful women so that it is not an odd commodity. If more women were outwardly ambitious, I feel it would not be so looked down upon. I also commend the BBC for doing an entire show on female leaders and letting young women know it is okay to be a women and have strong ambition.

  4. Although I feel Damn Shirley gave some legitimate advice when it came to how to navigate through the labyrinth, it had less impact on me than it could have had due to the fact that she had to sell herself short. She did this by choosing to use a man’s name in order to get to where see wanted. Although I believe whole heartedly that people should work for what they want and do what is necessary to get to that place, I don’t feel that one should have to sacrifice who they are and what they stand for in the process. I don’t agree we should be flattened. I think we hold ourselves high and work at what we want by being who we are and fighting for it in the way we want. Flattening ourselves only further allows women to be discriminated against and subjected to objectification. So let’s not soft sell ourselves. Let’s stand up and learn to be uncomfortable with others not liking our ambition. Surely it won’t take long for others to great used to the ambitious women leader= Women 2.0.

  5. I found it really interesting when the one woman spoke about the 100 reasons her mom would give her anytime she mentioned wanting to do something entrepreneurial. I commend her for respectfully “listening to the first reason” and then realizing that she didn’t aspire to live the same life as her mom. From her mother’s shoes, I think it can be hard to step outside of oneself and acknowledge that the circumstances she faced personally are different from the ones her daughter might face. Part of the issue is in the way that people think about themselves. I think there is a need overall for people to be more confident in themselves. Not arrogant, but confident and hungry with ambition. That is what our nation was built on and is the reason why we have come so far as a country. I also think this issue of lack of ambition and confidence has a lot to do with our individualistic, competitive culture. We have the mentality that “If you’re not first, you’re last” and that is honestly so sad. Also, I agree with Travis that we have come a long way and should be positive about the progress that will happen in the future. I am grateful for the many men and women who have come before me and fought for the rights and freedoms I enjoy on a daily basis. I can only hope that I will live in a time where I can look back and say there were strides made in equal rights that I witnessed in my lifetime and will provide more opportunities for generations to come.

  6. I would be very interested in a study that directly assesses the difference in the self confidence and ambition of men and women. We have seen research that suggests women soft sell their ambition and the cause being related to low confidence and societal views. However, I think a video such as this BBC one that asked men and women the same promoting questions and then let the other gender view responses and captured their reactions would be very beneficial to me. I wonder if men struggle with these same issues but because of the masculine qualities they are conditioned to have, they are less open about their insecurities. Like Haley said, for everyone having insecurities and low confidence is viewed as a weakness but theses are traits expected of females. For men struggling with these issues they might not be as open about them because now their peers may not only view them as weak, but as feminine and rejecting traditional societal roles as well. I would be interested to learn if men feel they have more to lose than women by showing these weaknesses.

  7. The topic of ambition and women is really interesting to me. I grew up thinking that being ambitious and determined was what was expected of me.
    My parents always pushed my brothers and I to become the best we possibly could be, and they really expected a lot from all of us.
    Because of this, I always thought that ambition was essential for success.
    I wonder if I will run into this while interviewing my second interviewee.
    I’ve never been in a situation where people look down on my ambition or determination.. and I hope that women in our generation and my kids never look at shooting for the stars (and showing it!) as a bad thing.

  8. During my interview with [a woman leader] a huge subject was about women and soft-selling their ambitions. When I explained to her the theory we learned about women soft selling their ambitions, she seemed very offended by the notion. She explained that she believes that strong women need to come out swinging and never back down. She was raised in Jamaica where women can only succeed if they are ambitious. After listening to her I strongly agree that no leader can succeed without the proper passion and ambition.

  9. That clip relates so much to what we’ve been talking about in class about ambition and self-confidence. It is so frustrating to know that the women before us felt that had to soft-sell themselves but yet are extremely success. It baffles me that their success does not show that they they are ambitious and self-confident. I hope that one day we will stop soft-selling ourselves and firmly stand our ground for what we believe because as of now, it just shows that we don’t see ourselves as strong enough. I’m interested to see how ambition is interpreted by my next interviewee, if they soft-sold themselves or were strong in their beliefs?

  10. This was so interesting to me. I think often times ambition gets a negative connotation, especially for women. It goes right alongside with feminism being considered a “bad” word. Neutralizing words will be a first step for women and men living and leading authentic lives. Great post!

  11. I found this post very interesting due to its comparison of how women were treated in the 60’s compared to today. Ambition is something that drives society as a whole and it is a shame that women in the past had to lower their personal ambitions in order to make ends meat. I don’t really how having ambition is unattractive. To me, showing that you want to better yourself is an attractive characteristic in regards to any relationship. I think it would be interesting to look at a study based on different socioeconomic statuses between the two time periods and between the different genders and racial profiles.

  12. It is great for women to have these types of role models and to see women succeeding in roles like these that don’t soft-sell themselves. As a woman leader, with all the struggles you have to overcome to get to the top, it is good to be able to see examples of women who have made it and who are shining and not diminishing their accomplishments. It is good to see how, already, society is changing to accept this and how as our generation moves into these roles, how much influence we will make with role models such as these.

  13. Every morning I wake up and I look in the mirror. I think to myself, “What am I going to do to change the world today?” I think about my past and what has gotten me to this point as a successful college student. Then, I think about my future and what will get me through the present and what I am living for. I have a note of “I am” on my mirror, to look at every morning while I am gearing up for my day, and every night while I am winding down from my day. I am a leader. I am a friend. I am strong-willed. I am the change. I could not imagine waking up every morning and feeling oppressed by our societies standards for women’s ambition. I am blessed to live a life of freedom and in an environment that allows me to grow and not oppress me due to my gender. I felt so empowered in hearing Dame Shirley speak in this video, it makes me want to be more powerful in my ambition and confidence. Thank you for sharing!

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