PSA: Being Ambitious is a Good Thing!

Why is it so hard to say ‘I’m ambitious’, without apologies? We find out exactly what women want in their careers, and what’s stopping them from getting it.  

There’s something about the word ‘ambitious’ that’s always had this negative undertone to it—club that general disdain with a woman having this particular quality? The stereotype that springs forth is a Type-A, work-addict, super-b*tch. Being the right amount of ambitious is a dangerous game, and women often feel the pressure from both ends of the spectrum. The sad thing is, ambition is paramount to a successful career—how are you likely to get to the top if you don’t have the drive to do it?  It’s ambition, will, and determination that lets you rise to the top—the position over 90 percent of all women under 30 want (according to a survey we conducted on Cosmopolitan.in). We spoke to a series of the women taking this survey and found out that they looked on the idea of running or managing something—be it anything from a law firm to a bakery—as extremely exciting, and a challenge they were truly up for. A similar survey from
LeanIn.org and McKinsey and Company studied these trends in detail to better understand women’s career goals and motivation.
Some see a big job as the payoff they deserve (‘I didn’t work this hard for nothing.’), others as the best way to make a difference (‘I like helping people achieve.’) and more still as having a voice in strategy. (‘When you’re not really calling the shots, you don’t really have a say in what gets done.’) 


“The journey to the top excites me. I take every opportunity as a chance to grow, and I love having a big goal,” says Deepti Talwar, a 26-year old copywriter at an advertising firm. “I do not believe becoming a top executive is a goal for everyone. However, that is the choice we as women should get to make.” Not that our hang-ups have suddenly gone away. Women under 30 remain significantly less ambitious for the top spot than men are, the new survey finds. And although women and men begin their careers with equal aspirations, at each subsequent level, men are more interested in being promoted. This ambivalence persists for good reason. As Sheryl Sandberg—Facebook COO, Co-Founder of LeanIn.org, and Cosmo US Contributing Careers Editor—has documented, studies consistently show that aggressive women are less liked at work and that they are less likely to move up as a result. “As a woman, I feel like I am expected to be more complacent with my career and less competitive,” says Gauri Sen, a 24-year old Editorial Assistant. “I struggle to find a balance between being feminine and ambitious in an office. I want to be respected and strong, not just fun and nice.” No-one wants to ‘lean in’ to being unlikable. Workplace policies—unequal pay, inflexible hours, paltry paid leave—haven’t evolved to accommodate women’s changing ambitions either, as the American Association of University Women has tracked. Even at companies that offer flexibility programmes and many of the employers in the LeanIn.org survey do— women and men tend not to take advantage. There’s a perception it would hurt them at work. Paternity leave is offered at 44 percent of the companies surveyed, but only 1 percent of men with children under 18 participated in the last three years.  When flexibility feels like a non-option, big ambitions seem more daunting. “My hard-working parents always struggled with work-life balance, and sometimes, it felt like the balance was not in my favour,” says Laetitia, a 23-year-old law intern in New Delhi. “I definitely think it would be tough to be in that demanding executive position.” Being in charge seems exhausting whether or not you have a family. Stress and pressure is the number-one reason women say they wouldn’t want to pursue an executive role. What’s not said enough is that the top is where you can potentially control your schedule the most, and enact change for other workers too. So, it’s disappointing that women are under-represented at every level in the corporate pipeline.  India, specifically, has the worst gender gap in the world when it comes to working women. Due to safety concerns, even educated, qualified women don’t work. In urban cities and sectors, few women make it to the top of the ladder. 




1. What is your greatest ambition?


“To do something that inspires me—but also to be able to let my personal life and relationships grow alongside it.” —Rhea T., 27

“To be the best at what I do—hands down.”  —RIMA S., 25

“To have a job that lets me work at my pace, in my style, and doesn’t usurp all my time.” —vinita a., 25

“To be able to be great at my job—and still manage to be a good wife and mother.” —raina d., 26


“To be utterly indispensable to my agency.” —Shriya S., 30


“For our organisation to become a forerunner in our field.” —sneha I., 28


“To be an example that a woman can most certainly rise to the top.” —Devyani J., 26


To be at a point in my career where no one questions my intelligence.” —Farah Z., 28



1. Would You Like to be Promoted from Your Current Position?  


“Absolutely! I take my job very seriously and I put in more hours than I need to because my goal is to hit the top by the time I’m 35. I also feel no need to apologise for it.”    —priyanka c. 29, marketing manager


“My career matters a lot—but not enough for me to go crazy and stop caring about everything else in my life. I need a balance—but I’m still trying to find it.”   —Deepti t., 26, senior copywriter


“I’m not the kind of person who’s obsessed with getting to the top—it’s more important for me to have variety in what I do. That’s why I’d give up a well-paying position for a more interesting job that may pay less.” —Aashna H., 28, graphic designer


2. Do You Aspire to be a Top Executive in Your Field? 


“I see myself managing a major record label someday—and this job gives me the opportunity to familiarise myself with music and what works for audiences in a way that being at a label from the start would never have let me do.”
—Saira k., 24,Disc Jockey


“I’ve been in the same organisation for six years, and been promoted every year. I’m certain I will be again.” — diya J., 30, division head, sales


“I don’t want to be CEO tomorrow, but I definitely need there to be steady growth—and to be rewarded for the work I put in.” — Mehtab P., 27, pr executive


3. Why Wouldn’t You Be Interested in Being a Top Executive? 


Stress and Pressure “It’s more important to me to have a certain quality of life than to be number-one ‘whatever’—I wouldn’t sacrifice that for a promotion.” —Keerti K., 26, event planner


Tip from the top “I always left the office at 5pm to go to yoga class, and then I’d go home and check my e-mail for an hour,” says Anne Kreamer, author of Risk/Reward. “You need to get your work done, but if you are working all the time, you get brittle. Find your yoga, baking or hiking, whatever it is that gives you inner fortitude.”


 Balancing Family and Work “I’ve always grown up wanting a family and a good work life—so my ideal job would be something that made space for that part of my life, when it happens.”—Abhaya S., 21, law student


Tip from the top Just because you aren’t crushing it at work for a couple of years doesn’t mean you aren’t ambitious. Life happens. “The important thing is not to scale back ambitions in anticipation of conflicts that don’t yet exist,” Sandberg says. “Anyone who is lucky enough to have options should keep them open for as long as possible.”


I’m Not Interested “As long as I’m paid enough to live comfortably and derive a great sense of satisfaction from my job, I don’t need a fancy designation to keep my juices flowing.”—Gauri s., 24, editorial assistant

“I’m more of a do-your-own-thing kind of girl than a corporate stooge.”—Hansika M., 29, stylist


 I Don’t Think I’d Succeed “Just because I’m good at my job doesn’t necessarily mean I’m cut out for top-level management. I don’t see the need to try for something I’m doubtful about my skills at, and then fail.”

—Sarika g., 27, social media analyst


 Tip from the top “To make sure the fear of failing doesn’t stop me, I over-prepare to ensure I know my stuff cold,” says Tai Wingfield, SVP at the Centre for Talent Innovation and co-author of CTI study Black Women: Ready to Lead. “Command your subject and you’ll command the room.”


4. Going Forward, Do You Think Being a Woman Will Make It Harder or Easier for You to Advance in Your Career? No Effect


“Luckily, I work at the kind of company that only really gives a sh*t about what kind of work I’m doing—my gender has absolutely no bearing in the matter.”  —Devyani J., 26, interior architect


We live in an era where equality of the genders is pretty high up on the priority list—I think people would think twice now before passing me up for promotion just because I’m a woman.” — Farah Z., 28, personal banker


5. Why Would Being a Woman Make Advancement Harder?


My Industry is Still Male Dominated “There are tonnes of great women in advertising, but it still happens to be a bit of a boy’s club. It’s not like I’m looked down on because I’m a woman at a senior level in the industry, but they're just aren’t too many of us around —Shriya S., 30, Creative director


“Being a female lawyer in this country is still a hard feat—you don’t get taken too seriously in court, and even clients don’t trust you quite as much as they trust your male counterparts. It adds to the challenge, though.” —Laetitia d., 23, law intern

Being a female bartender is not as cute as it looks in the films—just try and remember how many you’ve seen around!” —Shamaila k., 24, mixologist


Tip from the top The people who advise you don’t have to look like you. “Find a male sponsor!” says Kiersten Salander, Deputy Chief of Staff to the Chairman at Bloomberg, LP. “Look for someone who you feel comfortable going to for help over and over.”

Family Commitments Will Make it Hard


“I don’t have kids right now, so it’s fairly easy for me to put in the time and mental energy that my job requires. However, I am definitely a little worried about what will happen when I have a family, and whether my career will suffer because of it.”

—stuti j., 23, medical intern

“I’m very dedicated to my work, and my idea of a perfect life has never really included children. I would like to have a healthy marriage, but I don’t see kids getting in the way of my job.” —Tarini U., 24, commissioning editor


Society is biased


“Things are a lot better now than they used to be for women, I’m sure. Regardless, it often becomes a task to prove you can take on as much as a man can. If you’re gentler with people, they assume you’re soft ‘because you’re a woman’. If you’re tough, people are quick to label you a b*tch, which they might not do if it was a man in question.”  —Tamanna p., 28, financial analyst


“People at the company I work for have been mostly unbiased, but ever so often I do see people being a little dubious about giving a married woman or a woman with kids responsibilities because they wonder if she can handle it all.”—Deepika L., 26, clinical psychologist


“On the contrary, I work for an all-woman organisation, and we function fantastically—we’re not looked at any differently from our male-led counterpart companies.”—Sneha I., 28, Digital advertising exec.


Tip from the top Women can be saddled with ‘office housework’ and less glam projects. “If you’re picking up balls others have dropped, let them drop, and let someone else fix it,” says Lasso Bock, SVP of People Operations at Google. “This may feel worse for women. But if you’re working on something that isn’t valued, you’re wasting your time.”