Women and Ambition

MacKenZie Rumage discusses the lengths women may go to for the careers and the difficulties they encounter along the way; interviewing several inspiring women who are succeeding in their fields.

The world has undoubtedly become much more polarised over the past few years, especially on the topics of gender and feminism. But I think it should be a point of pride that even in a world filled with vilification on every imaginable side of every imaginable issue, women have spoken up for themselves. They have voices, and they are using them to lift themselves and other women up so that future generations of women can make their ways through the world much easier than their predecessors. Women are demanding to be heard — to have their stories heard. And they are telling these stories themselves on their own terms. I thought of some of the young women I know who have already made big strides in their careers so far and reached out to them.

The ambition of women is not something to be underestimated, and the world is starting to understand the full power and ability of it.

These traits, however, do not always come easily. As with anyone pursuing their ambitions, women face self-doubt. But the physical barriers we face only make those mental barriers worse. Even if women are aware of their self-worth and capabilities, it is difficult for society to come around to the idea that those attributes are valued, and not things to be afraid of. But how do women start to own their strength and potential, rather than apologise for it, as we are so used to doing?

St Andrews second year Margaux Woellner — who founded the St Andrews-based dress rental company, Ensemble, earlier this year — said, “The easiest option is to apologize when someone calls you bossy… But that loss of strength leads to loss of determination and drive, and that is when we stop pursuing our dreams.” Grace Moore, a third-year student at New York University, added that women have to prioritise: are their dreams and aspirations more important than living up to society’s expectations? When women find it within themselves to place their own aspirations before anyone else’s opinions, then they have the ability to make real progress within their own lives, and help pave the way for more women.

In order for us to open doors for women in every aspect of life we must first get past the unhealthy, vicious cycle of pitting women against other women, thus belittling them. Because women have largely had to answer to men in their careers, we have learned that we constantly have to prove our worth to them. But we as women have also been led to believe that there are a finite number of places available to women per job.

In a trailer for the upcoming biopic On the Basis of Sex, a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) says that an interviewer for a law firm told her that the firm had “hired a woman last year, and what in the world would they want with two of us?” This logic has conditioned women to believe and operate according to the idea that we have to be more deserving of a job than men going after the same job, but more deserving of it than other women going after that job as well. We have to continually demonstrate that we deserve a seat at the table, and we have to view our careers and our relationships with other women as competitions. Stuck in this thought process, we cannot ever be happy for other women’s successes.

Katherine Weltzien, a first-year student at University of California at Davis said that other women’s beauty, intelligence, humour, and creativity can make her insecure, but when that happens, her friends remind her that “recognizing and admiring another woman’s abilities doesn’t mean that I am any less capable or valuable.” She contends that is an easy enough idea to accept at face value, but harder to believe and put into practice. In the long run, however, breaking the cycle of women putting other women down has to end. Moore said that instead of thinking of other women as competition, we have to see another woman’s success as an opportunity in and of itself. “This woman moving up is just another step in the ladder,” she said. Woellner put it perfectly when she said, “… [women] can only be equal to men when we see ourselves as equal to other women. Feminism isn’t a competition, it’s a group project, and genders need to work together with each other and within themselves for equality to prevail”.

Weltzien and Woellner have both worked to create a sense of community and unity for women with their respective projects. For Woellner, the “most basic, core goal of Ensemble is to inspire an environment of togetherness.” Even though the world is filled with division, “the fact that I’m able to bring people together, even if just through dress lending/renting, is incredibly important to me.” While she is not looking at fashion specifically as a career choice, she sees the business aspect as a way to help change the world for the better. “I’ve always wanted to run a business so that I can use my position of power to fix problems that I see and incite change to improve my society, community, and world.”

Weltzien, after starting a successful Instagram lifestyle account and podcast, started her own website called Highlight Real Media. Highlight Real Media aim to tell the “REAL stories of [women’s] lives as activists, businesswomen, and personal growth enthusiasts.” The motivation behind creating this website, Weltzien said, was that she wanted to “create a space dedicated to highlighting the real, unpolished, honest aspects of women’s lives, thereby fostering a sense of true community rather than comparison.”

Moore had her own experience with another woman lifting her up and pushing her forward. A few years after travelling to Cuba with a young woman running a non-profit providing art supplies to Cubans and selling the artwork in New York, Moore was travelling around Africa working with a documentary photographer, recording the real daily lives of Africans. The experience was amazing and thrilling, but she still faced self-doubt over the quality of her photographs compared to other photographers’. One day, the young woman with whom Moore travelled to Cuba responded to one of Moore’s Instagram stories, saying that she thought Moore was doing such an amazing thing in going to Africa, and really creating a life for herself. This affirmation reminded Moore that she deserved to be where she was, and was capable of doing what she was doing.

Supporting women is key to maintaining and sparking ambition in other women — even if we personally do not understand their choices. These are things that Woellner wants to see more of from the feminist movement. Men, too, have to be part of the conversation, Woellner says. “The word ‘feminist’ is too often considered synonymous with man-hating, and that needs to change… How can we expect change if we only invite half of the population to work towards it?” Inclusivity and intersectionality have to be cornerstones of feminism, yet we still have improvements to make in those areas. Weltzien says that, as a “white, relatively affluent, cisgender, and heterosexual” woman, there are many issues marginalised women face that she does not have to. Therefore, she constantly is trying to make herself a better ally, saying that “it is the responsibility of women like me, who do have privilege, to support marginalized women without speaking for them.”.

One woman this applies to is Lucy Beall Lott, my friend and fellow writer at Label. She has Recessive Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa (otherwise known as EB), a genetic skin condition that she has written extensively about for Label and the Huffington Post. Though her condition has not hampered her from thriving in the British art world (she has worked at Sotheby’s, Dreweatts 1759 and the Saatchi Gallery), it has given her a negative viewpoint of the American job market. “I have had perspective bosses comment on my beauty and how that would be good for their business, then after I removed my jacket and they saw my scarring, replied that I was not who they wanted [to represent] their company.” It made her nervous about coming to the United Kingdom to work, but she faced none of the scrutiny she faced in the States, and her employers looking past her condition and at her actual potential allowed her to pursue her ambitions at the highest level, even at a young age. “I am so happy at my ability to work in a place I love… I never thought this wold be possible for me due to my condition. This happiness drives me, and I know now that I’ve begun and had my voice be heard in my field, I am not going anywhere.”

Beall Lott has mainly worked in auction houses, and says that the fields of art and art history have traditionally been seen as more feminine and easy back in the United States. The realities of working in galleries and auction houses, however, are actually complex and intensive, which came as a surprise to many. “I am not a pretty face ta the door of an auction house on Pall Mall handing out brochures,” she said. “I am a sales woman, a researcher, linguist and historian.” Women’s drive should not be seen as admirable when it is only applied to traditionally male-dominated careers, but in any job, because with every job comes its own unique set of challenges and complexities.

To foster that drive in young girls with EB, Beall Lott would advise that those girls remember that “your mind and ability to learn are the only thing EB will never touch on you. Remember that and use it.” Weltzien would tell young girls — able-bodied and not — that confidence takes many forms. “It can look like being loud and authoritative, and that’s totally cool, but it’s not the only way to be confident. For me, confidence just means taking pride in myself and my passions.” She would advise girls to focus on learning how to value herself, and if she feels confident, it does matter if her confidence is different from someone else’s. That confidence will be the foundation of the drive needed to push past sexism and be a champion for other women. Moore says that girls shouldn’t focus on being stuck in a patriarchal society. While it may be true, women have to focus on themselves and reaching their own goals, because whatever they create will outlast any patriarchy. After travelling extensively and working around the world, Moore said to approach any situation with an open mind, and not let any fear or caution — no matter how real — take over your life.

And there, I believe, is the key to encouraging women to act on their ambitions and society to embrace those ambitious women. Women have proven themselves to be just as competent as men in the workplace, and they have started to demand their deserved seats at the table en masse. Keeping an open mind and being open to opportunity and change will only result in progress for everyone.

2018 has been the year of the woman and it has been a long time coming. Though we still have many more hurdles to get past, we are lucky to be surrounded by women who are willing to knock them down for future generations of women.