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Your Ambition and Your Ally

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup serves as a powerful symbol of the world's growing acceptance and celebration of women's ambition and success in the realm of sports, inspiring future generations and reshaping societal attitudes toward female athletes.

Sophie Krantz
Sophie Krantz

Are you ambitious?

Your individual response to the word 'ambition' speaks volumes. While some relish and flourish in its driving force, for others, it brings about a sense of unease.

In business, ambition is often touted as a necessary and celebrated attribute, moving individuals towards leadership and as a driver of professional success. Nevertheless, looking closer at corporate environments reveals a troubling truth: the ambition demonstrated by women, and people who identify as women, is often met with resistance, and at times, negative repercussions.

It is in the workplace where the ambition of professional women dies a slow death.

It can be a lonely world as an ambitious woman in the workforce. A woman with ambition is:

Less likely to be hired

A study conducted by Heilman and Okimoto in 2007, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, outlines the negative repercussions women face for exhibiting characteristics commonly classified as ambitious, including assertiveness and dominance. The study highlights how women, when displaying such traits, were not as likely to be hired compared to their male counterparts who displayed the same attributes.

Forced to Pick One: Be Competent or Friendly

A report by Catalyst in 2007, titled "The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't," captured the quandary that ambitious women in leadership positions often find themselves in. It details the delicate balance these female leaders must maintain, constantly oscillating between being viewed as capable or approachable, but rarely both.

Seen as an Antagonist

Media plays a big role in how society views ambitious women. A 2012 study from the Journal of Gender Studies took a deep dive into how literature often paints ambitious women in a bad light, often as villains or the odd ones out. This isn't just reflecting society's take on ambitious women; it also feeds into the stereotype that ambition isn't a good look for women. These stories, which have become part of our culture, add to the pushback women face when they aim high in their careers.

Missing Role Models

While there has been some progress towards gender equality around the world, there are still too few women in top leadership roles. The 2020 "Global Gender Gap Report" by the World Economic Forum drives this point home, showing a long way to go to get more women in powerful positions. It also reveals that gender parity will not be reached for 99.5 years. But this goes beyond numbers; it reflects society's hesitation to fully support ambitious women.

Are there glimmers of light, where ambitious women are seen and supported? We can observe shifts by looking beyond organizations into broader society.

Ambition on the World Stage

Ambition was recently on show during the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup.

During the tournament, 32 teams from around the world competed, stadiums across the host nations of Australia and New Zealand were filled, and tv viewing and online engagement records were broken. According to FIFA chief women's football officer Sarai Brennan, about 2 billion people watched Spain beat England in the final.

It is on the football pitch where ambition is on show for the world to see.

In commercial terms, the tournament was a success. FIFA president Gianni Infantino said it was the “best and greatest and biggest Women‘s World Cup ever.” It generated close to US$900 million in revenue and was the second-highest income generated from any global sporting event, behind only the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar.

It is on the winners’ podium where the world ambition meets archaic behavior.

The athletes put on a world-class performance. The organizing bodies must unquestionably improve their performance in a number of ways. There are two key improvements to make. First, the prize money of the Women’s World Cup should match the men’s World Cup. The total for the recent women’s tournament was US$150 million compared to US$440 for the 2022 Men’s World Cup. Second, football federation presidents must not kiss star players on the winners’ podium.

Shifts in Society

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup played out in stadiums (and dragged out, for the wrong reasons, in the news until the eventual resignation of the Spanish football federation president). In each match, each athlete competed with the unapologetic ambition to represent their country and to be crowned the best in the world.  As they did, the hearts and minds of those watching the world were touched and moved to take action.

Nike sponsored England’s national team, called the Lionesses. The US sportswear brand was criticized before the tournament when it became apparent that replica shirts would not be available for the popular England goalkeeper Mary Earps. Earps served as the vice-captain for England and received the Golden Glove award for best goalkeeper of the tournament.

Nike’s brand suffered. According to Fast Company, “England’s tabloids have had a field day at Nike’s expense, and even The New Statesman—a British magazine better known for progressive politics than for encouraging multinational corporations to boost the world merch supply—has demanded Earps jerseys.”

It is on the internet where ambition meets its ally.

In response to Nike’s decision not to make Mary Earps goalkeeper jerseys available, 150,000 people signed an online petition. Nike did a U-turn and made a limited number of the Women’s World Cup goalkeeper jerseys available for purchase.

In building Exponential Organizations, it is a strategic advantage to have an engaged community. Community, one of the eleven ExO Attributes, involves creating a network of like-minded individuals who are passionate about the same cause or problem space. An organization can tap into its members' collective intelligence, passion, and resources to drive exponential growth and impact.

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup boosted the number of people around the world who support women football players. In the Nike and the Earps jersey case, an online Community backed the athlete over the multinational sportswear brand.

In his book 'Reinventing Capitalism in the Digital Age', Stephen Denning delves into this topic. Denning talks about a shift towards customer capitalism away from a focus on shareholder returns. In a digital and connected world, Denning notes, “Customers increasingly demand products and services that could make life easy, convenient, cheaper, more fun, or more meaningful, along with disdain for products and services that don’t.”

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup shows that the world is ready to celebrate the ambition and success of all athletes playing football.

The Enemy of Ambition

In 2023, the world celebrated the ambition of women on the football pitch. When interviewed, many players say that playing at the FIFA World Cup is a childhood dream come true. In stadiums and living rooms, this sparked the hopes and dreams of future football players.

In 2023, in boardrooms, meeting rooms, and Zoom rooms around the world, people in leadership positions make career-impacting decisions on new hires, promotions, and pay rises. Women in workplaces, across industry, academia, and politics have their fate decided. The evidence shows that there is little or no regard for their ambition. With no agency over their future, their ambition dies a slow death.

Ambition and its Ally

A large portion of the population may feel discomfort when asked: Are you ambitious?

A second question is: Will you support organizations that hinder the ambition of women?

The signals point to an increasingly confident NO response.

I believe that amplified ambition drives global goals. Stifled ambition of women in workplaces negatively impacts women's achievements in their professional and personal lives and, ultimately, their contribution to society. And it may soon negatively impact the workplaces that enable it.

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Sophie Krantz Twitter

Sophie is a global strategist who writes on global leadership in the digital age. She works with leaders worldwide to amplify their ambition and accelerate their agency to drive global goals.