by Margaret Locher

Career Advice: Ladies, Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word

Dec 01, 20063 mins

Stop worrying whether coworkers think you’re a bitch, and learn to speak up and promote yourself. That’s the advice for women who aspire to occupy the C-level suite, according to a new wave of advice tomes. The fear of being labeled negatively keeps women from achieving their career goals, says Debra Condren, author of amBITCHous, which hits shelves in January. Should women in IT pay attention to the current buzz on ambition? Yes, say female CIOs we spoke to: You must learn to build relationships and communicate well to succeed without being slapped with the B word.

“Women don’t use their power to build a platform for themselves at work, because they are afraid it’s going to make them seem arrogant,” Condren says.

Other recent titles such as Girl’s Guide to Being the Boss (Without Being a Bitch), Women Don’t Ask and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office urge women to avoid self-imposed career mistakes. “We’re not talking about the glass ceiling anymore,” says Condren. “We’re talking about what we’re doing to ourselves. Women are prone to second-guessing themselves, not getting (or taking) credit for their work and not promoting themselves.”

Promoting yourself in a male-dominated field can be tricky: In 2005, the Information Technology Association of America reported that women make up 32 percent of the IT workforce. And it’s harder for women to become CIOs than to achieve any other executive role, according to a 2006 study done by the University of California, Davis.

Female CIOs say differences in style and priorities can hold you back if you don’t manage them. “Men spend more time together in social settings like the golf course or the bar after work,” says Judy Stahl, a former CIO for Harvard Business School. “Women may not participate as much in these nonwork activities that create stronger partnerships which can lead to promotions.” Stahl chose to spend more after-work time with her husband than with coworkers, so she worked hard to build relationships during business hours, regularly checking in and showing genuine interest in others’ work.

Ambition, instead of meaning the pursuit of a passion, has come to represent a person who will step on others to get to the top, says Campbell Soup CIO Doreen Wright. Communication skills are key, she says. She recommends the book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. One mistake: “Women tend to be self-deprecating; they diminish compliments by saying something negative about themselves,” she says.

To prevent yourself from being labeled negatively, spend extra time “explaining why you are doing things the way you are,” says Wright. “A man behaving aggressively doesn’t have to explain why they are doing it, but I take the extra time to explain my position.”