Is It Honorable For Women To Give Up Their Ambition? Part II: Let's Get Real


When it “sunk in that mainstream schools shortchanged her severely autistic son”, Amy, 39, closed her thriving medical practice to help start charter school. For a long time, it seemed to be working out. “Then I found my husband in bed with a woman on the school committee. We went through a horrific divorce. I had to try to revive my career; at 49, it’s finally starting to take off again. But at my age, with everything I had to deal with, it was f_­­_g hard.” 


What If? Could this be you?

Continue reading "Is It Honorable For Women To Give Up Their Ambition? Part II: Let's Get Real" »

Is It Honorable For Women To Give Up Their Dreams?

Debra: You preach ambition for women. Aren’t you forgetting something? What about life balance? Mothering? –32, with better values than “just career”

Say your ambition is to be a great wife, mother, friend, or fair-minded coworker who refuses on moral grounds to educate herself about office politics. That doesn’t bother you, does it? No, because that’s socially sanctioned ambition. You’ll likely regard the following women as having chosen “honorable ambition”.

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When Joining Mom and Pop Is Good Business

Last week we talked about the cons of joining the family business (review my CONS advice at www.AmbitionIsNotADirtyWord). Now let’s talk pros.

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Joining Mom and Pop Good or Bad Business?

Dear Debra: I just finished my M.B.A. I’m seriously considering joining my parents’ business. Advice? –Mixed feelings at 26 

Let’s start with cons to consider:

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The Day My Son Almost Died

I make my living teaching women how to unapologetically own their ambition in a society that has a double standard. It’s our prevailing cultural paradigm: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are the b-word.

I define ambition as that which drives our creative existence, provides an outlet for our talents and passions, defines who we are, and allows us to earn our full worth without apology. I walk my talk.

But just like you I take hits.

In a moment of trauma, I too succumbed to those deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. It happened to me when my son almost died.

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The S.O.B. Diet: Silda Spitzer & The Sisterhood

We women always try and look on the bright side. Case in point: a friend who was going through a painful divorce and custody battle said to me, “Well, at least I’ll lose a few pounds—I’m on the Son of a Bitch Diet.”

Her husband—father to her children, ages two and four—had been having an affair. She kicked him out. He begged her to try again. She took him back. Several months later, she discovered he was back with his mistress.  He couldn’t help himself, he tearfully explained to his wife, his mistress was “the best friend I’ve ever had.” (Not surprisingly, he didn’t end up with the mistress after their divorce.)

After all that stress, my friend had shed her Mom jeans and was back in her skinny jeans.  She was right—the so-called Son of a Bitch Diet is the one surefire diet that works.

Continue reading "The S.O.B. Diet: Silda Spitzer & The Sisterhood" »


I'm traveling through the Little Rock, Arkansas airport hours after meeting in New York with a group of women to talk Hillary and women and ambition. Exiting security, the first thing I see, through the airport bookstore's window, is a large black and white poster of a photograph of Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea walking up onto a podium. The caption reads:

"Get Ready to Pary Like It's 1992".

Don't put on your party shoes just yet. There's still a hill to climb. And not just over substantive differences between candidates. Hillary's up against the same old story: it's tough being a working woman--and her campaign proves it, say female execs. They may or may not back her, but successful city women say  Clinton's travails show what they're up against.

Tory Johnson, CEO, Women For Hire, workplace contribitor on "Good Morning America" and anchor of "Home Work" on ABC News Now called a breakfast meeting to talk about what successful working women are saying about Hillary Clinton. Tory's resulting article was originally published in the New York Post, February 25, 2008 and is reprinted with permission below.

Nypost22508_5SISTER ACT: Tory Johnson (center) talking Hillary and careers with (from left to right) career coach and business psychologist Debra Condren, Working Mother Media CEO Carol Evans, attorney Sara Newman and Hyperion Books publisher Ellen Archer.

Guest post by Tory Johnson, CEO, Women For Hire.

LOVE her or hate her, win or lose, successful working women are talking about Hillary Clinton.

But it's not her politics that have them fired up. What getting under their skin is a laundry list of gender-nuanced issues brought to the fore by  Clinton's run for the ultimate corner office.


Beat the Bitch? Straight Talk on the B-Bomb

John McCain wants to be the next leader of the free world, and he gives a free pass to someone calling his opponent a "bitch", calls it "an excellent question"? And it took him endless obfuscating just to be able to rally to say, "I respect Hillary Clinton"! Never confronting the dropping of the B-bomb? Are you kidding me?

Continue reading "Beat the Bitch? Straight Talk on the B-Bomb" »

Getting High or Getting By?

Cross-posted with

Women who telecommute, at least part time, tell me, "I have a killer job."

The pièce de résistance of their professional setup? "I can work from home when I need to. I can bend my work schedule around my child's needs."

Turns out, that's a mixed blessing. It's a killer job, all right--and it's killing them.

Continue reading "Getting High or Getting By?" »

This New Year, Forget About Losing Weight--Make More Money Doing Work You Love Instead.


See also:

It has been said that "the surest way to keep a man in prison is not to let him know he's there." And the surest way to keep a woman from embracing her pure career ambition is to make her believe she's already done it.

Don't believe it.

Heading into 2007, we women are not advancing in our careers the way we should.

We're not getting the fulfillment we desire or making the money we deserve. And this time it's not men who are holding us back. This time, sisters, we're doing it to ourselves, because ambition--for us--is still a dirty word.

Don't believe me? Look at yourself in the mirror. Now say these words: "I am successful." It feels good, doesn't it? It makes you smile a little. Now say these words: "I am ambitious." How does that feel? Did you cringe? Did you say it quietly, afraid someone would hear you?

Let's face it, there's just one word that our culture bestows on that supremely ambitious woman who unrepentantly values a career: bitch. Do you unconsciously buy into our prevailing cultural paradigm: ambitious men are go-getters, but ambitious women are bitches? If so, you're not alone.

As founder of the Women's Business Alliance, and as a business psychologist, I've coached thousands of women at every level--from those just starting out to the most powerful executives and entrepreneurs. I began to detect a striking pattern: even self-professed successful women were hitting walls, unable to achieve the next level in their professional lives--and they didn't know why. Certainly they were well aware of the famed glass ceiling, lack of support for those who choose to juggle work and family. However, they had no idea that the greatest factor holding them back was a barrier they themselves had created and internalized.

Seven years ago, I began a systematic investigation of women's attitudes toward ambition. For my new book, amBITCHous: (def.) a woman who 1. makes more money 2. has more power 3. gets the recognition she deserves 4. has the determination to go after her dreams and can do it with integrity, I interviewed more than five hundred women from every corner of the country and between the ages of nineteen and sixty-five.

These were all women who regarded themselves as high-achieving. Many were already quite accomplished. Others were rookies with brand-new, promising careers in front of them. I asked these women how they saw themselves, how they visualized an ambitious woman, and what held them back from achieving even greater success and fulfillment.

I made a fascinating discovery. High-achieving women all harbor the same dirty little secret: we all struggle with socially sanctioned failure to embrace our ambition. We all have the same pernicious audio loop playing between our ears:

Will being as ambitious as I dream of being make me less of a woman? Can I? Should I? Dare I? Have I gone too far? Will it cost me my personal life? Will I make enemies? Will it make those I care about suffer? Is it impossible to be ambitious and happy? Am I charging too much? Am I giving my employer or my clients their money's worth? Is it wrong to care as much about making money as I do about making a meaningful contribution and being fulfilled at work? Will I lose an opportunity if I ask for more money? Who do I think I am calling myself an expert? Do I really know what I'm doing or am I in over my head? Does sticking up for myself and taking credit mean I'm greedy, arrogant and that I'm being unfair to people I work with? Am I deserving of recognition and power? Am I worthy of going after my biggest, most precious career dreams?

Each woman possesses the same fear: if she goes after her dream, she'll be seen--or she'll regard herself--as selfish, bitchy, a bad wife, or a bad mother. But it's exactly this fear of ambition that has forced women to leave the best part of themselves--their dreams, their great talents--by the roadside, rendering them half of what they should be in every area of life.

Ambition isn't a dirty word, but as far as many women are concerned, it might as well be. It doesn't matter where we grew up, went to school, or go to work. It's the same whether we're in our twenties and new to our careers, or in our fifties and sixties and among the most highly-regarded professionals in our industries. Today, the greatest barrier to earning more money, getting the power and recognition we deserve, and feeling entitled to stay the course comes from inside of ourselves. We agonize over whether or not we deserve to be ambitious--and about what it will cost us.

This is emphatically not a game of semantics. The women I've surveyed don't simply prefer the word successful to ambitious. They don't mind being regarded as successful, but they're afraid of being called ambitious.

"I still think that girls are encouraged to be nice and to be liked, and to be about the team and everybody else," says Mary Lou Quinlan, founder and CEO of Just Ask a Woman, "To say you're ambitious means you want to rise above everybody else or be different. I don't think we cheer on ambition enough among women....I don't know how many people cheered Carly Fiorina's ambition. Or Andrea Jung's...It's almost like the word is 'am-bitchin'."

"Catherine," forty-one, an M.D., researcher, and associate clinical professor, echoes her concern: "I think we should throw out the word ambition, because I don't like that word. I like the word aspiration, which means 'a desire with focus.'...Or the word passion. I prefer synonyms rather than the word ambition."

Consider what "Vera," fifty-seven, and a longtime high-seven-figure earner, famously referred to as a rock star and legend in her corporate industry, said to me:

"I want to change the world. True, I couldn't live without my work, without being inspired every day. I'm successful--things have just sort of fallen into place in my career. But no, I'm not ambitious--I want to effect positive change in the world, yet my family is very important to me."

Women have been told not to value their ambition. Instead, we're spoon-fed a culturally acceptable, watered-down definition of success; you're successful if you master the work/life equation, achieve a "life in balance." We're told that when we master this juggling act, we're "succeeding on our own terms."

Few of us challenge the notion that the accepted definition of success might actually be holding women back because it is couched in such a positive way: "You don't have to be unabashedly ambitious. You're above all that. You're sophisticated enough to realize that ambition isn't as important as getting the life-balance equation right." Or, "You don't have to be ambitious the way a man is. You've come around to realize that success is a different, and better, goal than ambition. You can win with empathy, cooperation and being generous. You don't have to give up being a woman to get ahead."

I count it as a Pyrrhic victory that our modern, progressive culture is no longer pushing the idea that women cannot have it all. The message that books and popular media are transmitting is: We can have it all--so long as we're willing to redefine what "it" is. Now it's not the killer job and the great home life; it's balancing the two, which, practically speaking, means less of each: women should be just thrilled to have a not-ideal job and a not-ideal life as long as they feel the two are balanced.

How can we take seriously the necessary soul-searching required to discover what we were meant to do professionally when we never explicitly discuss our pure, unadulterated ambition? When we're pacified with a playbook that praises our "softer side" instead of arming us with hardball techniques? When there's more breathless coverage of Madonna's adoption or alleged marital woes than her phenomenal success as a businesswoman? When we're told we haven't truly succeeded until we're always equally happy at home and at work?

My goal is to address the great hunger on the part of high-aiming women for advice that speaks to our discontent--and to our ambition to be freely ambitious. I have a new message and mission: to convince women that ambition is not a four-letter word. Ambition is the best of who you are. You owe it to yourself and the world to make the contribution you were born to make.

Here's my challenge to you: Go down just as hard for your ambition as you do for any other primary priority in your life, be it lover, friend, child, community; don't sacrifice your ambition for any reason.

Wouldn't it be great if you could reclaim and redefine ambition in its most gloriously positive sense? Wouldn't it be inspiring if you could acknowledge straight up, to yourself and to others, that you have big, wild, and precious professional goals? That you crave excellence? Wouldn't it feel great to challenge yourself fiercely?

Wouldn't it be great if you believed that you could be audaciously ambitious and happy at the same time? Wouldn't it feel great to trust that you could achieve your career goals without compromising your personal life, but rather enhancing it? Wouldn't it be so freeing to acknowledge, in your core, that your ambitious goals are sacrosanct, just as inviolable as other nonnegotiable priorities in your life?

Wouldn't it be such a relief to know deep down that you are great at what you do? Wouldn't you feel fabulous if you could bitch-slap that doubting voice in your head that accuses you of not having earned your spot at the grown-ups' table, of not deserving your share of the power, the recognition, the credit--and the money?

Wouldn't it be great to be amBITCHous?

My vision is that we make a collective shift in thinking where we all understand that our right career path, our true professional calling--our ambitchous desire to love our work--is as much a part of the "who I am" equation as feeling that we are good mothers, loyal wives, worthy colleagues. And that we do so with an uncompromising, unyielding belief in our right and ability and obligation to do so.

Deborah Saweuyer-Parks thinks this way. She is founder, president, and CEO of Homestead Capital, a huge powerhouse now in ten western states created to address the lack of affordable housing. Deborah thrives on her ambition--and aggressively counsels women who work for her to do the same:

"I believe opportunity is limitless. I am very ambitious. And yes I'm incredibly passionate about my work, but I'm equally passionate about my family, I'm equally passionate about my friends. I think you just have to manage your life so that you can be a full recipient of all of it."

In 2007, let's reclaim ambition as a virtue. Embracing a virtuous definition of winning as an ambitchous woman who believes that the world deserves to hear from her means following three golden rules:

1. You must love your work.
You must be willing to aggressively pursue the professional work you were meant to do and to strive for any career opportunities that inspire you.

2. You must regard your deepest career aspirations as unconditionally sacrosanct.
The real way to have a great life is to see your career ambition as a part of your value system to which you must give equal attention, along with other non-negotiable priorities in your life, including your partner, your kids, your friends.

3. You must feel entitled to earn your worth.
You must be able to charge your full marketplace value without self-reproach, without leaving money on the table, and without feeling like an impostor because you make as much as--or more than--a man.

Adopt a New Mindset: Go Down Hard For Your Ambition

If you don't go down hard for your ambition, you're letting the best part of you, the part that the world deserves to have you contribute, rot in a basement. In 2007, let's get her out.

"I got really serious about deciding what does make me feel alive. What makes me feel like I can face myself every morning? And to me that was living my dream. You know everybody has them. I decided it's all that mattered in the world and that I'd rather die than not live my dream--it just wasn't worth it to be alive otherwise. And this [her singing career] came along and since then I've had no problem getting up working twenty hour days and touring forty cities every thirty days because I feel a lot less alone and I also feel like I get to help other people too, and that gives me great fulfillment." -Jewel, recording artist, interviewed by Sarah McLachlan.

Protect your passion. As the amBITCHous woman you are entitled to be, I encourage you to answer for yourself, every day, a question posed in Mary Oliver's poem "The Summer Day":

Tell me, What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Comments :

Christians still pushing the "stay at home" shame game. The problem is that they are doing it at the UN, which is a place were they can have influence in nations were women have no rights. I challenge every feminist to move this very important battle international. This is where this commentary needs to make the most relevance. We still have a major slavery problem all over the world with women.

By: leftchrist on December 27, 2006 at 08:18pm
Flag: [abusive]

Women's "fear of success" is not some bizarre irrational neurotic phobia holding them back from competing in the world. Women fear success because they see that in this world, women who are successful in traditional male roles are punished. Much like banishment from years ago, successful women are publicly attacked and ostracized.

Does anyone really think Martha Stewart went to prison over a stock trade? No, it was because she was an extremely successful take-no-prisoners woman in business who did precisely the same thing hundreds of similarly situated men have done. The difference is, she went to prison.

Hillary Clinton (who I don't particularly support) is absolutely hated because as first lady she did not stick to decorating or mouthing concerns for nutrition and childcare, and instead took on a major institutional political issue: healthcare. When they were done pummeling her, she returned meekly to the proper concern of women: It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.

Women would not need shrinks if men would just stop beating up women, raping them, demeaning, devaluing, abusing them, calling them whores bitches and the c-word, threatening, terrorizing, and excluding them from equal participation in the work force. Women who are subject to this abuse and realize the impossibility of breaking through will suffer confusion, low self esteem, depression, and a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. But the fault does not lie with the women's psyche - it lies with the system and the institutions run by men which continue to exclude women, to refuse to hire and promote or to compensate equally with men.

By: NABNYC on December 27, 2006 at 09:05pm
Flag: [abusive]

We can if we support each other.

By: isis on December 27, 2006 at 09:08pm
Flag: [abusive]

In my opinion, as a male, the very title of this piece demonstrates the difficulty of the dual roles that modern women have to play. Losing weight is as important of a New Year's Resolution consideration as career goal-setting! Our perceptions of the feminine is supportive, nurturing, and reassuring. Wives and mothers are associated with these qualities. It's difficult to reconcile these qualities with those of an aggresive Alpha-type businessperson whose mantra is "maximize profits/ minimize cost". I agree that women should be allowed to have succesful and satisfying careers, but I fear you ask for too much if you wish to be thought of well. Successful, powerful men are often thought of as uncaring and cold: part of the territory, but if you want to participate in ambitious career-building competition, be prepared to be seen as less than nurturing, or less feminine. Don't let men or their treatment of women define who you are both as a professional and as a person. Instead, create a positive base from which you develop your own identity that is uniquely ambitious, yet feminine--independant of males or male opinions. Focus on what makes you happy and prioritize accordingly. Have a Happy and Prosperous (one need not exclude the other) New Year!

By: wymariner on December 27, 2006 at 10:58pm
Flag: [abusive]

I am a woman. I have always loved doing home repairs and remodeling, yet I can't voice that to most people without them saying something stupid like, "Won't you get hurt? Won't you break your nails? You'll have callouses!"
The only women I've actually met who do this kind of work for a living are lesbians, so I know I'll be thought one if I do this. Oh, well, some of the nicest people I know are gay, so if I can actually get a good job doing this, I'll cross that bridge when I get there. I'm not afraid to make a change and really hope to pursue a career in this field this year. Wish me luck!

By: TLV on December 28, 2006 at 10:53am
Flag: [abusive]

Amen sister. I LOVE this - and it is so true. How can we even speak about women being empowered and "whole" when we are are cut off from our primal instincts - which, I believe, includes the female drive to compete and succeed. We need to have more discourse around this and stop pretending it ain't so; stop allowing ourselves to be pacified and polarized.

None of this means we can't also embody the "feminine" - empathic, relational and genuinely caring. (And did I mention fierce?) What is this preoccupation we have as a culture, to slice-n-dice reality; to polarize women; reduce us to either/ or? We are so much bigger and more creative than that.

Moreover, denying our own aggressive appetites breeds duplicity, encouraging women to hide their innermost desires which is part of what gets us into trouble, esp. with each other.

Perhaps the problem that some still have is with the word "ambitious" - which has sadly become a dirty word even in feminism. I too would like to see this change. Bravo!

By: savagebeauty on December 28, 2006 at 06:32pm
Flag: [abusive]

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I am a business psychologist, researcher, author, executive coach, and career advisor. I lead workshops and lecture frequently on women’s need to embrace our ambition. I founded the Women’s Business Alliance, a motivational think tank for more than 2,500 women. For more details, see my about page.

I’d love to hear your story. Ambitious women owe it to ourselves—and the world—to make the contribution we were born to make. Let’s keep the dialogue flowing.


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