Amidst the clinking of celebratory glasses, there were hushed whispers. ‘She did always look ambitious to me,’ said one woman, her lip curled indicating her disapproval. ‘Way too aggressive for a woman.’

Another woman joined in. ‘I agree. But look at the husband — a CEO yet so modest.’

Read between the lines and you will realise that while for men being ambitious is considered a virtue, women with ambition are seen to be aggressive, and the quality considered not one to aspire for.

Typically defined as a strong wish to achieve something, ambition, to many, when used to describe men is seen as a positive quality without any associated sense of guilt. Being prime breadwinners of the family, it is in fact even considered essential for a man to be ambitious if he were to survive and thrive in a competitive environment.

But according to some people Friday spoke to, when the word is used to describe a woman, it suddenly acquires a slightly negative connotation. Not infrequently, an ambitious woman is seen as one who would not think twice of trampling over another woman’s — or man’s — dreams and hopes in her race up the career ladder.

Says Joy Ajlouny, founder of Fetchr, who manages a workforce of 500 employees at the on-demand pick-up and delivery service in the UAE: ‘As a woman I can say it has been very tough for me; gender inequality is real. When a woman is ambitious, she is going against the grain of her gender. You can’t be ambitious and feminine, you need to be one or the other. As women, we naturally want to be liked and be ‘a good girl’. If you adhere to this and stay silent in the workplace, you get overlooked and when you speak up about things that need to be changed, you are labelled aggressive and disruptive.

‘At the same time, if a man [does the same things] he is seen as powerful, assertive and a leader. This is what is called, The Double Bind.’

Does gender really have a role to play when it comes to ambition?

According to Tanya Dharamshi, a counselling psychologist, ‘Studies show males may appear to be more ambitious as they have a far more competitive appetite than females. Females appear to be more selective in their choice of competition and ambition and are less likely to engage in outward competition with short-term gain. They are more likely to have a long-term ambitious view or goal, whether it is a long-term career choice or raising successful children.’

Culture and family have strong influence on women's aspirations

Is ambition a bad word when it comes to a woman describing herself as “being ambitious?”

Joy does not think so. ‘Ambition is always looked upon as a dirty word, especially [when used] for women; it is not expected of them [to be ambitious]. But I see it as a huge compliment when someone says ‘you are ambitious’. It means you are willing to work as hard as you can and to do what you need to do, to make it happen.

‘Ambition is about being a trailblazer and a person who is willing to make and fulfil their own destiny.’

Fatma Albannai, an Emirati poet and founder of Emirati writing group ‘Untitled Chapters’, agrees. ‘I don’t see anyone who would think that being ambitious is shameful or that it’s something to be embarrassed about. I think society really has a positive reaction to anyone calling themselves ambitious.’

That said, just because a woman is working and adding value to a workplace does not necessarily mean that she sees herself as being ambitious. Helen Farmer, who has worked in the publishing business previously and currently hosts a weekly radio show aside from running a parenting blog, refuses to associate herself with the big A word. ‘No, I don’t think of myself as ambitious in that I don’t tie my happiness to progress at work or money. I was always conscientious at school and did well, but my friends and social life were equally important. What has followed has been a mix of hard work and good timing.’

Helen is not the only achiever who prefers not to describe herself as being ambitious. US-based psychiatrist Anna Fels, who interviewed several women and men while researching for her topic ‘Do Women Lack Ambition?’, found that none of the women admitted to being ambitious.

For them, ‘ambition’ implied egotism, selfishness, self-aggrandisement, or the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Instead, the constant refrain was ‘It’s not me; it’s the work.’

Says Anna: ‘Men simply do not talk this way. Many cultures define masculinity as being financially strong, which is indirectly linked to being ambitious. Hence, it is a widely accepted and unquestioned trait for a man to have.’

On the other side of the gender fence, Anshuman Bhattacharya, creative head of an advertising agency in Dubai, defines ambition as the drive to keep outdoing what you think you are capable of.

‘In the case of a man, being ambitious is seen as a requirement, while for women, it is seen as more of a quality that is “nice to have”. This must change,’ he says.

Fatma, however, does not think ambition is related to gender in any way. ‘It doesn’t matter what your gender is,’ she says. ‘Of course, there may be individuals who [believe] that women shouldn’t be as ambitious as men… But the vast majority of society loves seeing women achievers.’

Helen offers a different take on the subject. ‘It takes confidence to know that if someone has a problem with you being ambitious then it’s really a reflection of their own insecurities, rather than a reflection of you.’

Some women, however, are aware of their personal drives a little more than others. Says Mona Ataya, CEO of Mumzworld, an e-commerce vertical for all things mother, baby and child, ‘Yes, I’ve always been ambitious. From a very young age I’ve learnt that you have to work for what you want and nothing comes from nothing.’

Assia Riccio agrees. An Italian based in the UAE who leads Evolvin’ Women, a platform that connects the hospitality industry to women talent from developing countries, she has been clear about her ambitious stride. ‘I’ve always wanted to do better and achieve more. To me ambition is anything that drives me to do better. In my case it is exponential positive impact.’

In some cases, family can have an influence and shape an individual’s views.

Says Fatma, ‘All the women in my family work or have worked before retiring, including my mother. Seeing my parents, I realised that ambition is not a fantasy but when paired with drive and hard work, it can take you places and make you successful.’

Ambition has a cultural context

Tanya would second that, agreeing external influences matter. ‘Culture and family certainly play an integral role in defining our level of ambition as well as our socioeconomic status. Being born into deep poverty brings with it despair and a sense of hopelessness. Being born into extreme wealth may not foster strong ambition.

‘While upper-middle class individuals have the comfort of wealth, studies show how they do not take this for granted — it rather stimulates their desire to strive for their own success.’

That a strong woman in the family easily influences the course of the women of the future generations is evident in the case of Shamira Mitha, managing director of Verve Agency, too. ‘Ambition for me has always been a positive word, because my mum lived it. She taught me to follow my dreams, never be afraid to believe in one’s self and one’s ability. At the age of 80 she still runs a successful business back home.’

So, would an ambitious person be able to strike a perfect work/life balance?

‘I strive to give equal measure to all areas of my life,’ says Mona. It is a choice and a concerted effort and is not easy. But it is the choice I have made for myself. The only area that perhaps suffers is ‘me-time’ and ‘time with friends.’’

Balance is key, Tanya agrees. ‘While [ambition] may cause happiness, it can also instil the desire to continuously strive for more. This can have negative repercussions, particularly in terms of the need to make greater sacrifices along the way to help achieve their goals.’

The work/life balance challenge is equally for men as for women. Says Anshuman, ‘My work does take up most of my time. Striking a work-life balance is an everyday challenge, but that doesn’t discourage me from continuing to try. And when you have a partner who gets it, you find even more motivation to find time.’

Can men play a role in helping women achieve their ambitions a bit easier?

‘That would depend on the man,’ says Joy. ‘It would require a very confident forward-thinking man to be able to say, ‘I am here to support you.’ Upbringing is key here. If a man comes from a progressive family where his mother has worked and achieved her goals, I believe that would make him more open to supporting women.’

Culture too can influence one’s aspirations. Joy says: ‘I am a single Palestinian woman and I believe that my upbringing created a strong work ethic. As the daughter of a refugee, it teaches you that you need to fight for what you want and it gave me the determination to strive against all odds.’

Helen seconds that. One’s culture can encourage women to achieve as much as men, she says. ‘Today, the majority of family and domestic work still falls to the mother, but there’s also an expectation for women to hold full-time jobs. What has been amazing over the last decade or so is to see female role models across business, sport, politics and more. This can validate a girl’s dream — you can more easily imagine yourself doing something remarkable if you can physically see another woman there.’

A Lebanese-Palestinian by origin, Mona maintains that her culture does not enforce domestic tendencies on women, as opposed to the perceived norm. ‘I was raised in the Gulf among Arab expats and Emiratis who encouraged and supported women’s education and achievement. I never felt any differentiation between my male counterparts at school or at work. There is certainly a difference up the corporate ladder — which is a global issue — but women are fast making their mark in education and industry.’

While women continue to make their mark in various fields, many are also embracing the freedom to choose what she is ambitious about. Says Assia, ‘I was very fortunate to be raised in a family that allowed me to travel at a very young age and be exposed to different cultures. I learned about the multiple roles of women in society and the freedom of choice. I feel the more ambitious you are, the more opportunities you create for yourself regardless of whether you are a man or a woman.’

Ambition, in general, has been loosely associated with one’s professional achievements and professional drive. Seen from a larger perspective of the lens of life, ambition can be dreams for your own life as well. ‘My ambition was to have a healthy family with two kids,’ says Maria Shagird, who took a break from her high paying job at an international food company to look after her two kids.

Ambition fuels self-esteem

Joy on the other hand, feels that this ‘exercise’ of ambitions is extremely important for the health of a person’s self-esteem. ‘Setting goals and achieving them on your own is the best way to feel good about yourself. This gives you a sense of self-esteem and confidence that few can give you. [So] it’s OK to put yourself and your ambitions first. It is important to set goals and accomplish them.’

Tanya backs her. Ambition is actually healthy, she says. ‘Ambitious people achieve their goals and have a strong work ethic. Studies have found that ambitious people tend to be more highly educated and achieve a higher income and socioeconomic status.’

While on the subject of achievers, a word that comes up often is ‘sacrifice’ — to achieve something it is believed that one has to give up something as well.

Says Mona, ‘Balance is a daily struggle. It is not easy and it is not for everyone. Importantly as long as the woman’s ambitions do not conflict with her family’s vision, she can reconcile that balance. However, the struggle is more difficult when the woman’s work does not allow her to fulfil her family vision. In that instance the woman must make a choice of what is more important. Family, of course, always comes first.’

Joy acknowledges it. ‘It is much harder for a woman to achieve her goals and I believe we have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves. I’ve seen so many women say I can’t be a mum and work so I will need to let go of my job. I never hear a man say, ‘I can’t be a dad and work [so I am quitting my job]. This stereotype is ridiculous.’

So, will they give their partner’s ambition the same importance as their own?

‘Yes absolutely,’ says Anshuman. ‘Being equally ambitious is very important in any relationship. That way, there is equal understanding and never a lack of encouragement.’

Fatma looks at it a bit differently. ‘It’s a problem if both spouses have no ambition at all,’ she chuckles. ‘I am very ambitious and want my partner to have ambitions of his own too. I am proud of his ambitions and achievements and I think it will frustrate me if he had no ambition.’

She admits that one can’t force a person to be ambitious if they don’t want to. But in an instance where the spouse is not ambitious, you may have to rethink your relationship, she feels.

Can being ambitious for a woman come in the way of her personal or family life?

Anshuman does not think so. A few years back, he decided to move from Mumbai to Dubai after his wife landed a job here. He admits it was a tough choice to make. ‘Leaving behind a well-established professional and a social circle and restarting life in a place where I didn’t really know anyone, did come with its shortcomings. I guess her belief in me is all I needed to find my footing. And to be honest, love is all it takes to make you do things you never thought you could.’

Fatma makes it clear that there will be ‘a small percentage of people who will undermine women and what they do because they are still set in their old ways’. But she is pleased ‘that percentage is dwindling with each achievement that women make.’