Women and Ambition

The Project, the Issues, the Research

“Even when the path is nominally open — when there is nothing to prevent women from becoming a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant — there are many phantoms and obstacles looming in her way. To discuss and define them is of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties solved.”                                 — Virginia Woolf

In October 2004, my mother told me about a book called, Necessary Dreams:  Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives, by Anna Fels.  Fels, a NYC psychiatrist, researched women’s attitudes towards ambition and the paths women take to reach their goals.  She defines ambition as a combination of mastery and recognition, and suggests that the recognition aspect of ambition most creates ambivalence in women.  Fels makes this provocative claim:

“Women tend to feel foolish asking for more attention for their contributions. The mandate that females provide recognition to males is a basic requirement of the white, middle-class notion of femininity. Challenging this state of affairs is a high-risk, potentially high-loss venture” (pp. 47-8).

Another recent book, Women Don’t Ask,  by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, looks at research showing that women generally accept less pay than men and often do not ask for more.  Pay is a very concrete form of recognition.

Initially, I looked at ways to turn the scholarly work of both books into exercises, activities, and discussion topics to help women address ambition issues in their own lives.  Since 2005, I’ve run ambition talks and workshops for women in Ontario, Alberta, and BC.  We’ve discussed the following questions:

  • What is a flourishing life?  Are women flourishing in the workplace?
  • Is it a problem for society when educated women are not working, work part-time, or work at areas outside of their training?  Why?
  • Why are educated women often with graduate degrees leaving the workforce to have their families?  (How do they feel, what happens when they try to return, how do their partners feel?)
  • Is there another “ceiling” besides the glass one?  What is it?  Can it be melted?
  • Is it different when there is a woman on top?  How?  What changes can women make when they are in decision-making positions?
  • Are women workers considered less valuable than men workers?  How do we know?
  • What issues do women face (that men don’t) in thinking about personal ambitions?
  • Why are women in male-dominated fields such as science and engineering particularly important in this discussion?
  • Are there situations that face women in science and technology that men do not have to deal with?
  • Are there any ways younger women who love their work can prepare their lives without having to sacrifice either their career or their family?
  • What does it mean to negotiate equality at home as we seek equality in the workplace?
  • What does it mean for a workplace to be “family-friendly”.  What is the reality?

Here are the descriptions and links to some of the recent ambition sessions.  More workshops are in the works:

March 12, 2007


University of Calgary

Calgary, AB

Women, Science, and Ambition

March 10, 2007

Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences and the Jade Project

UBC Okanagan

Kelowna, BC

Dare to Be Ambitious

Available to undergraduate women interested in careers in the sciences.

March 9, 2007

School of Graduate Studies

UBC Okanagan

Kelowna, BC

Women and Ambition:  Dreaming Beyond Ambivalence

Available to Women Grad Students
    Do you sometimes feel ambivalent towards aspects of ambition?  Does it frustrate you when people encourage you or pressure you to be more ambitious?  What are the factors affecting women’s attitudes towards ambition and recognition?
    This provocative, interactive discussion will explore how ambition plays out in the lives and minds of graduate students. We will look at the sources of women’s ambitions and how our own attitudes and the attitudes of others may influence the personal and professional decisions we make.  Examples from the lives of successful Canadian women will be shared.

March 5, 2007  7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Society of Canadian Women in Science and Technology

YWCA, 535 Hornby St. 4th Floor

Vancouver, BC

Women and Ambition:  Revisited 

Available to members of SCWIST and other Vancouver women in the sciences.

    One year after the initial ambition workshops with graduate students at SFU and UBC, we will revisit the topic of ambition and explore the challenges and changes we have experienced.

Feb. 28, 2007, 5:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.

Women in Engineering and Computer Science and DAWEG

University of Victoria

Victoria, BC

Live Ambitiously:  Degrees, Careers, and our Personal Lives

Open to all women in science in the Victoria area

    In this workshop, we will:

  • Explore our attitudes towards our careers, dreams, and ambitions in the sciences.
  • Look at influences in the culture, in the workforce, and in us that discourage us from dreaming big.
  • Prepare ourselves for these influences and be ready to counteract them.
  • Discover ways not to let our careers unravel when children and family become part of our lives.

November 17-21, 2006

University of Victoria

Victoria, BC

Women and Ambition:  What’s Holding You Back

A series of six workshops aimed at faculty, staff, students, alumni and members of the public in Victoria.

June 22-25, 2006    Calgary, Alberta

CCWESTT Conference (Canadian Coalition for Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology)

Necessary Dreams:  A Workshop Exploring Women and Ambition

    Ambition brings together a desire for both mastery and recognition.  While women seek mastery as avidly as men do, they often defer recognition to others.  Are women ambivalent about seeking recognition for their achievements or about being known as ambitious?  Might this ambivalence be affecting our success and contribute to the low numbers of women in non-traditional fields?  In this workshop, participants will investigate their feelings about professional advancement, goals and dreams, autonomy, and success.

    This workshop gives women guidelines for envisioning their future by formulating and examining goals and then looking at what might be blocking them from achieving these goals – both internal and external factors.  Blocks may include the difficult task of sharing values and responsibilities with one’s partner as well as a corporate culture which might not be encouraging of women’s dreams.

    We will then become aware of tools to help the unblocking process — tools which include activities, beliefs, resources, allies, skills, and attitudes. As a result, women will become more confident and proactive as they pursue their ambitions. 

We will cover a selection of areas drawn from the following.  We wish to

  • uncover our attitudes towards mastery and recognition
  • examine the consequences of seeking or achieving mastery without receiving recognition
  • examine the perception we have of ourselves as protagonists in our narratives
  • explore fears associated with success and accomplishment
  • identify goals within our chosen fields
  • explore blocks to achieving those goals
  • develop tools to help the unblocking process.

Participants receive a workbook containing exercises and activities.  The workbook draws its inspiration from Anna Fels’s book, Necessary Dreams:  Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives (Pantheon, 2004) and Women Don’t Ask:  Negotiation and the Gender Divide, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever (Princeton University Press, 2003).

April 22, 2006

Soft Skills for Hard Scientists:  A Jade Bridges Project

YWCA, 535 Hornby St. 4th Floor

Vancouver, B.C.

Women and Ambition:  Can I Have a PhD and a Personal Life

A day-long workshop sponsored by The Jade Project.

January 29, 2006   12:15 – 1:30 p.m.  Toronto, ON


University of Toronto

Department of Computer Science Women’s Lunch

Bahen Building Room 7231

Women and Ambition

Lil will lead a provocative discussion on how ambition plays out in the lives and minds of women in the sciences.  Lil will share situations faced by successful women that suggest ambivalence towards aspects of ambition.  She will particularly  look at attitudes toward mastery and recognition and how these attitudes affect our professional lives.