Thank goodness Kamala Harris is ambitious, and that’s not all she is
Issue 140 — August 31, 2020
It was so predictable. Any woman who had the audacity to run for president must be too ambitious, said the wagging tongues and talking heads.
Ambitious when applied to a woman becomes an epithet. Applied to a man, it isn’t just a compliment, it’s an assumption.
Why wouldn’t he be ambitious? How else would he get ahead?
Or: Why would she be ambitious — there must be something wrong, something sinister about her.
So it didn’t surprise me at all when the minute Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his vice presidential pick, she was attacked for being — not even too ambitious, but simply for being ambitious.
Well hoopdedo. I should hope she and every woman is ambitious.
The problem of being perceived as ambitious in the negative isn’t with her. It’s with a culture that punishes women for being ambitious even as it rewards men for those exact same behaviors.
It’s the phenomenon psychologists call stereotype threat. When you break your culture’s gender stereotype, and every culture has them, you cause cognitive dissonance. You upset the prevailing expectations for your behavior as a man or a woman and you are likely to be treated badly. You may be publicly attacked, ostracized, mocked.
Some Biden supporters reportedly tried to get Harris dumped from the ticket, fearing she would be “too ambitious” and might — gasp — aspire to become president.
Oh, really? And hasn’t Biden himself been blatantly, transparently ambitious about wanting to be president for the last, maybe, 30 years?
But apparently that doesn’t count because he is a man and after all men are supposed to be ambitious.
His supporters who have their britches in a wad over Harris are so blinded by their own implicit biases that they can’t see the irony of their allegations against Harris. Nor can they see the deeply ingrained acceptance by just about everyone of the fact that the women in his life have spent their lives supporting his ambition. His sister Valerie Biden Owens ran all his Senate campaigns and his previous campaigns for President. She serves as a senior adviser to his 2020 campaign. Biden Owens credits the vice president’s late wife Neilia as being the energy behind his first U. S. senate race. And certainly his now-wife Jill Biden plays the perfect supportive spouse even as she sets a new standard for prospective First Ladies by saying she will keep her job as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.
But you see, that’s all ok because the women are all supporting players rather than the candidate.
It’s such a pervasive gender bias that no one even notices the pattern. As they say, fish can’t see the water they swim in.
But when a bright, accomplished, ambitious woman like Kamala Harris aspires to be California Attorney General then Senator then president of the U.S., and now Joe Biden’s running mate, she’s judged too ambitious.
Happens every day. Happens twice as often when the woman is Black or Latina or anything but white. So the biracial Kamala Harris who generally identifies as Black has faced an extra share of disparaging comments about her ambition. And I say good for her for confronting them and remaining ambitious.
Danielle M. Winterhalter, a political consultant for SpeakEasy Political, told the Washington Post’s “The Lilly” column that part of the problem is deep-rooted.
“Seeing women in the forefront of the political arena is still something our society is becoming accustomed to, and whether folks like to admit it or not — it causes a decent amount of discomfort, and that discomfort is often quantified in terms like ‘overly ambitious’ and ‘quite sure of herself,’” Winterhalter said. “We need to support women running, working and getting involved in all levels of government to make our participation in the norm.”
The same is true in business and every other endeavor.
The change will come when enough women are ambitious enough to seek leadership roles anyway, and to achieve them and do a great job at it. Nothing succeeds like success. This is also why I counsel women to take those corporate jobs when offered in troubled organizations. While there is a risk of women being brought in when there are messes to clean up, I say, go ahead. It’s worth the risk to give it a try.
Casting aspersions on women’s ambition isn’t new, and in my opinion is an intentional, though often unconscious, cultural pressure for women not to have high ambition. In good news that suggests the change in public opinion is already afoot, the latest research published by the American Psychologist finds that people now see women as ambitious as men.
Thank goodness Kamala Harris is one of those ambitious women turning the characteristic into a culturally sanctioned good thing.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, ‘you are out of your lane,’” Harris said during a livestream conversation for the Black Girls Lead 2020 conference. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”
I would say those who say Kamala Harris is ambitious don’t even know the half of it. They have no idea the sea of change that she is about to bring. She isn’t just ambitious. She is intentional.
Ambition is the fuel; intention uses that fuel to fly into action.
And yes she seeks power and that’s a good thing because you can’t be an effective leader without using power.
Kamala Harris is the right sort of person to break up the prevailing stereotype threat because she confounds all racist tropes. She’s the American mosaic personified. You can’t put her in a box and keep her there. She is a woman of multi cultures. A child of Indian and Jamaican immigrants. With a white Jewish husband whose children call her “Mamela” to boot. You can’t get more apple pie American than that.
And isn’t ambition one of the highest American values? Oh but not for a woman? Time to get over that. If for no other reason than the evidence is clearer every day that countries with female leaders by and large do better than those with male leaders.
I mean, have the men, as much as we love them, done such a stellar job running the world?
Maybe it’s time for ambitious women to be put in charge of things for, say the next 2000 years.
So I have just two tips for you today and they are brief.
- Be as ambitious as you want to be. Don’t let anyone rob you of your dreams or dissuade you from aspiring to achieve your heart’s desire or to use your talents for your highest and best intentions. The world needs you to be you.
- If someone says you are ambitious, just say “thank you.”
P.S. Here’s my podcast discussing some of these questions. Please share it and this article with anyone whom you think they might help. Listen, subscribe, and let me know how it goes for you.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.