Is ambition really a dirty word in business?

As Meghan Markle dissects negativity around the word “ambition”, seven female leaders talk to Management Today about their experience as ambitious women.

by Orianna Rosa Royle
Last Updated: 19 Oct 2023

Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, recently discussed the consequences of being an ambitious woman.

Apparently for some the notion of women aspiring to achieve success is a “terrible, terrible thing”, she shared on the first episode of her Archetypes podcast featuring Serena Williams.

Markle went on to describe how ambitious women are seen as “calculating, selfish, aggressive or a climber”.

She’s not entirely wrong. Some studies have shown that women who ask for more – more money, more responsibility, more say – at work can be perceived as demanding and, as a result, are less likely to be promoted. But in real life experiences don’t always align with what researchers, or Markle, say.

So Management Today talked to a handful of women at the top of their game to find out if “ambition” really is a dirty word in business. Sadly, but unsurprising, we found that most female CEOs echoed Markle’s view when looking back at the start of their careers

But once business women have reached senior leadership, it seems that the negativity around ambition (within their firms, at least) dies down. Partly because a company which enables women to thrive and reach leadership roles probably has a more inclusive culture than those where women aren’t promoted. Or perhaps it’s by being in a leadership role, ambitious women shift others' outdated views. Or just maybe, it’s because from the top it’s too high up to hear the chitter chatter of those calling female chiefs cold.

Here’s what seven female leaders had to say on the matter: 

Camilla Kemp, CEO, M&C Saatchi London

“Earlier in my career, I certainly worked with people who viewed ambitious women in a negative way, while seeing ambition as a positive trait when displayed by men. There’s often an assumption that ambition comes at a price, meaning you’re not a good wife or mother, or that you’re not a nice person, and I’ve also seen suspicion and cynicism about how successful women got to where they are.

“However, in my current role, this negativity is not something I experience. I think it will take time to change perceptions of ambitious women in business. These tropes are so ingrained in our society that things won’t get better without active efforts to build positive, inclusive work environments.”

Charlotte Duerden, executive vice-president, Chief International Customer Officer, American Express

“Our Ambition Project research, in partnership with The New York Women’s Foundation, found that externally, while 65% of professional women around the world consider themselves ambitious, only 29% said they are proud to call themselves that. Yet it’s essential that women feel able to talk about or openly name their ambitions, otherwise how effective can they be at achieving them?

“If we’re to improve gender balance at a senior level across all industries, it's crucial we shine a spotlight on this important topic and help normalise, as well as encourage, the conversation on women’s ambition. From my own experience, it was only by speaking up and being clear about my ambition, that I was able to pinpoint the steps I needed to take and get the support I needed on that journey.”

Rania Robinson, CEO and managing partner, Quiet Storm; WACL president

"From a personal point of view, I have always been feisty and outspoken, but there is still something in our culture that makes some people feel uncomfortable with those qualities in a woman. Perhaps it is the residual impact of past expectations and gender stereotypes, or perhaps it's the fact that for some women themselves, ambition just doesn't sit comfortably with them.

“As women, we are so much more resilient than men, we face so many more challenges and have to overcome so many more obstacles. Ambition is far from being a 'dirty word', it's just a question of interpretation. What seems ambitious to one person is aggressive and pushy to another and we need to unpick what is going on behind these different viewpoints. Ambition is a force for change, and change is what we need to encourage more women into senior roles and address the gender imbalance not just in business, but out in the wider world as well."

Dr Carrie Santos, CEO, Entrepreneurs’ Organization

“Aspiration and ambition are qualities worth celebrating in all people – especially women. Only when we claim the future we desire, can we go out and create it. Women have a lot to bring to the table. Businesses need women, as customers, in their teams and as their leaders. We are over half of the population and any organization that isn’t tapping into the wisdom and influence of women for its direction is clearly missing a trick.

“Yet I have heard countless stories from members – and friends and family –  where certain women have been overlooked for a pay rise, promotion or role because they were judged harshly by others for their confidence and ambition. Sadly, the world is still not a level playing field.”

Theresia Le Battistini, CEO, Fashion League 

“If a man is ambitious, he’s considered to be a leader; but if a woman is described the same way, a lot of people will assume that she’s cold, ruthless, and not a team-player. As a result, you hear a lot of women trying to downplay their success. We say things like, ‘I’m just lucky,’ or ‘Oh, I was just in the right place at the right time.’

“But here’s the thing – if you’re proud of who you are, what you’ve created, and how far you come, you deserve to have the right to talk about the work that you’ve put into your journey. Speaking about how hard you’ve worked shows people that you care about what you’ve built. And when you give yourself permission to speak about your accomplishments, you also give it to other women who may have been afraid about being labelled ‘cutthroat.’”

Soula Parassidis, CEO, Living Opera

“Pure ambition – that is, the strong desire to do or achieve success by determination and hard work – is a good thing. The pursuit of excellence requires ambition in order to persevere in truly tedious tasks. Ambition turns ugly when a person lacks integrity and is willing to damage others, burn bridges, and subvert truth because the 'ends justify the means'.

“It’s sometimes hard to prove the intent behind someone’s actions, but in most workplaces there is a culture that makes it pretty easy to spot who’s there for themselves. When we say we want 'team players' in the workplace, we’re really saying we want a group of trustworthy people that will work with a pureness of heart to see the greater good served. And that only comes by an ambitious mindset that is willing to push through difficulty to get to the other side."

Alice Regester, co-founder and CEO, 33Seconds

“The term ‘ambition’ has long been synonymous with climbing the career ladder and financial gain. Perhaps that’s why it sometimes causes more controversy when used to describe women - as traditionally we were not seen as the breadwinners.

“However, as times change, perhaps the term itself is in need of a 21st century update - particularly in the wake of the pandemic, as many people continue to reassess their priorities, goals and what really matters. As a business leader today, ambition does, and should, encompass more than just the financial -  forward-thinking founders and CEOs want to create happy, healthy and diverse teams - focusing on areas such as employee mental health and flexible working to achieve this.”

Image credit: Max Mumby/Indigo via Getty Images