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The Truth About Ambition

(It's not a dirty word)

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In recent decades, women have made some great advances in education and in the workplace, but we still lag behind men when it comes to compensation, promotion, and executive-level management. This remains true, even though the nation's top colleges are graduating more women than men.

Bernice Lavin, a mother of three and high-powered executive of a multi-million dollar corporation in the early '70s, is one of the women CNNMoney described in its article "The Most Powerful Women in Business—Then and Now." Lavin claimed that although the women in her sales force did a better job than the men, they were unwilling to take on responsibility and were fearful of making mistakes.

Lavin's point is basically the same as Sheryl Sandbergs', the current COO of Facebook, when she urges women "not to quit too early due to a vexing variety of personal choices" and exhorts them not to "leave before they leave."

. . . except that Lavin was speaking back in 1973. Has so little changed?

What's holding women back?

Looking at the prospects of working women, two high-powered executives, 40 years apart, concluded that the thing that might be holding women back is women. What if they're right? What if women are not being "held back," but rather women are choosing not to move forward?

Well, frankly, that's okay. If I see a woman making a mature and purposeful choice to "lean back" from work in order to prioritize other things, I celebrate her and praise God that she has the opportunity to make that choice.

The problem is that some women, and especially Christian women, aren't making that choice for themselves. Instead, they're letting guilt make it for them. We've come to see ambition as synonymous with greed, pride, and selfishness. If you offer a young mother-to-be a choice between her family and "selfish pride," she's almost definitely going to choose family. Have you ever heard anyone (male or female) complimented at church for their "ambition"?

We've come to see ambition as synonymous with greed, pride, and selfishness.

Is ambition bad?

Ambition shouldn't be a dirty word. It doesn't have to entail sacrificing family or other good things. It is possible to balance career ambitions with life's other priorities, like family and faith.

Yes, professional ambition certainly can be selfish. It can be sinful, especially if it comes from the wrong place and especially if it gets out of balance in your life. The Bible makes it clear that "No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Luke 16:13).

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Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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The Truth About Ambition