Is today’s culture killing ambition?


I recently attended an event called The Ambition Debate hosted by Independent Women, Scotland’s first independent financial advisers offering a tailored personal service to a female clientele.  The need for such a service nationwide aside, (which is why this event was held in London), Independent Women hosted a lively and topical panel discussion about how to engender ambition amongst women and the challenges that this presents.

Speakers included serial entrepreneur, Karen Darby, who is well known to Funny Women as a past Challenger and supporter of our shows and events.  Karen spoke passionately about the need for quotas but also believes that we build in our own obsolescence by having women-only organisations.  Karen looks forward to a day when there is no need for us to have women’s groups and organisations for anything because we will be equal. 

The general consensus amongst the panel – which included Shalina Khemka, CEO of the London Entrepreneur Exchange; Gita Patel of Stargate Capital; Steve Allen, deputy chief constable at Lothian & Borders Police with responsibility for diversity and equality; and moderator Professor Eleanor Shaw, director of research at Strathclyde Business School – was that talent rules.  If a woman is good at what she does, she should be given an opportunity to excel.  Her gender should not be ‘an issue’.

There has been much argument against quotas but there are good reasons for creating singular shortlists to balance things out.  This shouldn’t detract from talent but without men in the mix, it’s easier for women to push the barriers and get the top jobs.  Sexual chemistry and tradition can get in the way when it comes to competition for a key role.

The only male panellist, Steve Allen, made the point that most organisations really want more women around but have to actively recruit for them, hence quotas – men like women and their increasing presence in in the police force has been a force for reform and change.

We are socially conditioned that men should do certain jobs and women others and, as the job market shrinks in the face of urgent economies, the post-war mentality of prioritising male candidates is becoming alarmingly more common.  The surviving women have ‘sharp elbows’ to push their way to the top and, once there, are not going to give up their positions to anybody, male or female. 

Then there’s the representation of women in the media with its almost post-apocalyptic vision of women with figures like Barbie, servile to the vagaries of their (always) male partners serving up meticulous prepared gourmet meals in their perfect crumb-free kitchens, wearing 10 inch heels whilst nursing beautiful babies…  OK, that maybe harsh, but take a look at this week’s crop of glossies and you’ll see what I mean!  It’s a return to the 1950s mentality – just look at the success of the television series Mad Men and the new release, Pan Am, about to hit these shores.  Our appetite for culture is a direct reflection of society.

Why aren’t we celebrating real talent?  The sad truth is that women are still judged on the way they look and beauty is often partnered with success.  We are authors of our own misfortune and gobble up the diet of pap that perpetuates these attitudes, so it’s time to escape from the perfectly co-ordinated, cosy Kath Kidston world and explore the possibilities beyond and above our ‘duties’ as women.

Sadly, women are often more frightened of success than of failure because of what comes along with it – i.e. less time to be wife, mother someone’s daughter or best friend. So going forward, we need to make time to nurture success and build the word AMBITION into the female vocabulary.

To end on a positive note, there is now a whole new generation of smart, sassy funny women out there because culture reflects our modern diverse society.  Women need to be pretty ambitious to get up on a stage and perform stand-up in what is still a predominantly male circuit but they are learning to use their voice and talents to change perceptions despite the media.  I’m proud that Funny Women and its ‘quota’ of female comics is leading the way.

Lynne Parker