Graham: The words used to reinforce the ‘glass ceiling’

Ambition isn’t seen as a negative trait for men. Why is it used to deny leadership roles for women?

By Ciera Graham / Herald columnist

I’ve grown up with messages during my childhood about the importance of hard work, academic excellence and remaining persistent through all obstacles and challenges.

As a person from a working-class background, you learn the importance of working hard as a means to advance your class status and achieve a piece of the “American Dream.” As a woman of color, I was inundated with messages of self-reliance and building confidence in my own abilities in order to deal with the world’s rejection of my talent and brilliance. As I navigated predominately white schools, I always had to be better and try harder than my white counterparts.

Early on, I learned that people often compartmentalize what they think you should be based on societal and stereotypical assumptions. When you don’t fit neatly into this stereotypical box of what society thinks you should be, many people around you experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a term for the state of discomfort felt when two or more modes of thought contradict each other. This theory is based on the premise that people try to avoid inconsistencies within in their own thinking.

Society has a set ideas and assumptions of how they think men and women should dress, act and behave. Historical and traditional roles for women have often been characterized by subservience, non-assertiveness, self-sacrificing and by not showing authority or dominance over men. Research shows that women experience stigmatization and risk being ostracized in the workplace if they appear too opinionated, aggressive or express dissent. Words like “bossy” or “sassy” or worse are often used as pejorative terms toward women when they step out of their societal defined roles.

I am reminded everyday of how much society struggles to understand women and their career ambition; especially as someone who is in my mid-30s and does not currently have children. I am often assumed to be selfish and uncaring because I have opted to prioritize my own needs and that of my career over the creation of a family. We view motherhood as a sign or proof of womanhood instead of a choice that women can either choose or not choose to make.

When women don’t fit this altruistic, caring and benevolent stereotype that is associated with motherhood, we have a hard time accepting and respecting women who opt exclusively for career ambition. I am sure many women like myself have ruminated over whether being independent and career driven is too much for this world.

Millennial women are opting to start families later or forego childbirth and rearing all together to prioritize their career and own satisfaction. While we’re experiencing a new generation of women who are more demanding more out of their careers than ever before, many of them still face backlash when seeking career advancement. I was reminded of how much ambition is still a “dirty word” for women when Sen. Kamala Harris — now Joe’s Biden vice president pick — was called “too ambitious.”

Harris was first sworn in as a Democratic senator from California in 2017, only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, as well as the first-ever person of South Asian descent to serve. Harris always had high career aspirations and indicated that she had wanted to be a lawyer ever since she was child.

In 2003, she ran for the office of San Francisco’s district attorney, winning the election to become the first-ever female DA in San Francisco and the first-ever African-American DA in the state. Harris entered the presidential race in 2019. Prior to Biden announcing her as his running mate, she had been one of the top and most highly desired candidates for the role.

A cluster of Biden allies and donors earlier brought forth complaints to his veep search committee that Harris shouldn’t be chosen because she was too ambitious and would be too occupied with trying to secure the presidency herself. Ambition shown by women has never been an admirable attribute especially if people think that ambition could disrupt traditional power dynamics. More importantly, for women of color — who have always had to work twice as hard to combat systemic gender and racial oppression — their ambition is viewed as an act of defiance and provocation. What Biden’s allies and donors were really saying was: “How dare Kamala Harris want a position that is predominately and historically held by white men?”

When we define leadership and what it means to be a leader in this country and in our workplace, we use code: words like aggressive, intrusive or “willing to push the envelope.” These are typically behaviors and actions denied to women, and women are frequently criticized for displaying them. When we look at political leadership it should come as no surprise that our leaders have been predominately white and male and benefited from a system of legacy hires and nepotism. Harris isn’t too ambitious; she is a complete contradiction to what we know and have known about political leadership. She’s a woman of color and a daughter to immigrant parents.

When we look at Black women heroes like Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman and Michelle Obama, we see women who have shown an unfathomable amount of strength and resolve, but we rarely question how racism and sexism continue to put Black women in positions where they always have to be better, be perfect and try harder. If we have systems in place that disadvantage people of color and woman, they often must resort to being invincible to combat systemic oppression. For many Black women who desire a piece of the American Dream, ambition is a forced choice, and rarely a convenient one.

We never interrogate a man’s ambition even though 14 of our previous vice presidents have sought the presidency. Are they not viewed as too ambitious because they desired more? Of course not, but somehow, we managed to concoct a different set of rules for a woman of color who desires the same seat.

For so long, women of color have had to quiet their ambition, their tenacity and their aspirations. This may have left many of us feeling guilty about wanting and desiring more, but Sen. Harris doesn’t appear to be phased by it all. During a recent conference, Harris said: “There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’ 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 want you to be ambitious.”

In a world where women have more access to freedoms and liberties, we need to be teaching our young girls to be unapologetically ambitious, formidable and fierce. Regardless of whether you agree with the politics of Kamala Harris, I couldn’t be prouder to witness what her stepping into the vice president role means for woman who look like me. Her ambition is resistance, and she is not letting anyone define what her life should and shouldn’t be.

Women’s ambition isn’t just a fad. Get use to it. Many of us are not only coming for seats traditionally occupied by white men, we’re also not afraid to build our own table.

Follow Herald columnist Ciera Graham on Twitter @CieraGrahamPhD.

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