When I left university in the noughties, I may not have achieved many of my life’s ambitions, but at least – in that simpler, lower-tech world – I knew...
I’ve moved around a lot in the past few years. In fact, I’ve packed up my worldly belongings into battered cardboard boxes and relocated my entire life no less than six times since September 2012. That’s six removal vans, six mournful rear-window gazes as I roll away from a place I used to call home, thirteen stress-induced family falling outs, two broken toes and a whole heap of moving-day pizza.
The last time I moved was in December 2015. During a thirty minute attic hunt for an emergency roll of duct tape (never did find it), I instead came across, and very nearly put my foot through, a tattered and moth-eaten box of priceless childhood memories and artefacts. And what was on the top? My very own Year 1 school report.
The very last comment asked me to finish the sentence “Next time I will try harder to…” My scrawled, swoopy, six-year-old handwritten answer stared back at me: “…not be a bit bossy because every time I take charge of something, someone always whispers ‘bossy boots’.”
I have always been an ambitious person. I’ve always wanted to excel in what I do, because I try really, really hard to only dedicate my time and energy to projects and companies that I truly believe in. I’m a perfectionist by nature, but I’ve also always had big visions for my life, and what I want to achieve in it. As my school report evidences, this was clearly the case from a very young age. Six-year-old Hannah was full of confidence, enthusiasm, and ready to take on the world – even though ‘the world’ at that time was only ready to let me organise and administer a break-time game of ‘Stuck in the Mud’.
By the age of six, somewhere in children’s minds, they’re already learning to view ambition, drive, and determination in girls as a negative, unappealing trait. And that’s something that’s just really, really not okay.
Would little Timmy have been called ‘bossy boots’ by his teacher or classmates for taking the lead on a group project? I really don’t think so. It’s more likely that he would’ve been lauded and applauded for his excellent ‘leadership skills’ and ‘focus’.
In 2004, Cornell University faculty member Anna Fels wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called ‘Do Women Lack Ambition?’ to try to understand the complexity of the issue between ambition and gender. Her results showed that, nope, women as a whole don’t lack ambition – they just lack the language to express that ambition. Many interviewees that Fels spoke to said that the word ‘ambition’, to them, called up images of trampling ruthlessly over colleagues and friends alike in order to scramble desperately up the career ladder. Words like ‘manipulation’ were also bandied around a lot.
Men feel threatened by ambitious women. It destabilises their sense of self. Women are supposed to be soft, and cuddly, and maternal – leave it to the man to wear a suit and shout at people in offices by the Shard, right?
My specific ambitions are obviously clearer to me now than they were at the age of six. I want to have successful careers in both publishing and journalism (it can be done, OK?). I want to read 80 books a year and, at some point, have a family of my own. And I want to be recognised for those things when I do them well.
I lost a lot of confidence during school from eye rolls and whispers whenever I stuck up my hand to answer a question (which, admittedly, was a LOT). Now, and especially since I read that school report, sitting in a stripped-bare living room on an upturned laundry basket, I’m convinced that the whole thing had a lot more to do with gender than I realised at the time.
Gender equality is definitely heading in the right direction. But we’ve got a long way to go yet. So now, for every success I accrue, I celebrate twice. I celebrate it for myself. And I celebrate it for my gender – for achieving something, despite being told over and over again, verbally and nonverbally, ‘you’re a woman – you can’t do this’.
I would love to say that seven-year-old Hannah kept to her bossy boots ways in Year 2. Sadly, she didn’t. Luckily, my ambitious confidence is back in a big way these days, but for many women, this just isn’t the case.
Let’s reclaim the word ‘ambitious’, just like author Holly Bourne has sought to reclaim the word ‘spinster’ in her excellent YA novel ‘Am I Normal Yet?’. Being an ‘ambitious woman’ isn’t being a ‘bossy boots’, ‘trampling on colleagues’, or relying on manipulation to get to where we want to be. Being an ‘ambitious woman’ is wanting to be successful, and not wanting to apologise for it.
Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahbperry
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