It’s Exhausting to Be an Ambitious Woman. There I Said It


It’s Exhausting to Be an Ambitious Woman. There I Said It

Illustration: Hitesh Sonar

I sat across from my colleague holding my drink as tight as possible. Afraid I would break the glass, I put it down, and shook my head saying, “Of course, he gets paid more than me. I am not surprised. He’s senior.”

“But it still bothers me,” my colleague said. “You work thrice as hard.”

I did. In two years less than my senior, I was at the same level but paid only half as much. But what stung more than the knowledge was my hesitation and nervousness in asking for what was due to me. He’d asked for more, I hadn’t. That must be my fault, right?

I stayed up all night and then decided to ask for more. Later, the whole thought made me feel like it was my fault to have said anything at all. A lot of rhetoric was thrown in the air about how this was “open for discussion” and I could “definitely ask for more money”. But I left feeling like I was wrong.

And very, very tired.

How many of us spend hours tossing and turning in bed because we’re second-guessing our worth at work? Or wondering if we’re coming on too strong when we’re asking for leave? Have you had someone double check your emails at work to make sure you’re not wording something too strongly? Do you neutralise instructions with smiley faces and “I just think it might be better if…”?

Go back to the time someone first made you question why being the best or wanting to be the best was a problem. I know I remember.

I’ve watched female colleagues pass on suggestions through male colleagues just to be heard.

The room was cold, yet comforting, as all English classes were for me. We stared at the poem meant to be learnt “by heart”. I looked toward my teacher, ready. That’s the thing about being eight. You have the confidence of being able to do anything you really want to do because no one has dared say no yet or made you question your self worth. No one has questioned your ambition.

I went to the front of the class and recited the poem, without glancing at the book even once. I made eye contact with every member of my small audience, just like I’d seen good performers do on stage. When I was done, my teacher told the class, “THIS is how I want everyone to recite poems. Very well done, Sonia.”

I thought this was just paving my way to being the Miss Universe I always wanted to be. But things did not exactly pan out that way – I could barely make Miss Congeniality. Classmates I called friends started bullying me because the teachers loved me. I remained “friends” with my bullies, but I couldn’t help but shrink a little on the inside. We all have an inherent need to be loved and I thought I had to be less than myself to be loved.

Only two months later, I won the first prize at a recitation competition in school. But my face on stage resembled McKayla Maroney winning a Silver Olympics medal. My mother asked, “Why didn’t you look happy?” I squirmed in my seat, and mumbled, “I don’t know, Mom.”

But I did. I was afraid I’d be even less popular, that I must have to diminish myself to be liked.

Throughout school, I was called competitive because I liked winning. I was called loud because I wanted to express myself. I was called intimidating because I could command a room. The Indian education system is a stifling one to begin with, and our culture propagates a general disdain for girls with opinions or minds of their own. Boys asking questions are insightful; girls asking questions are disruptors. Boys standing up for themselves are brave; girls standing up for themselves are unruly.

In some ways, we never outgrow the school playground. The standards continue to be different.

At my first job as a reporter, my boss asked me to attend work every single day, while male colleagues were allowed to be out and reporting. Men who were hired with me at the same time just asked for more money and got what they asked for. What was stopping me?

“Did I settle?” plays on loop in my head and infuriates me. And now I am just angry.

Now, at the age of 26, I think I’m a little better off than that. But even today, I struggle to speak up for myself when men hijack conversations in brainstorm meetings. I watch men discuss data while the women are asked to chime in when the conversation veers toward “empathy” and “sentiment”. I’ve watched female colleagues pass on suggestions through male colleagues just to be heard.

I ask for work. I ask to be seen. Women always have to. I have to sometimes watch work slip from my hands and handed to men in front of me and then get asked, “Why aren’t you working harder?” I ask, I ask, I ask, until I can’t anymore. I cry to myself in bathrooms, hold my own in meeting rooms, and yet, I worry. Am I good enough? Am I not doing enough? Am I not asking for my due? Am I asking for too much?

As all ambitious women probably are, I am frankly… exhausted.

A lot of perfectly wonderful women around me walk around feeling like impostors in their own skin because the world is constantly questioning our beliefs, our desires, our talents, and our confidence. It begins at home: At 21, when I decided to start investing the money I was earning, my accountant asked, “Itni savings kyun karni hai? In the next five years, waise bhi shaadi hi toh karni hai.” My father, who raised a feminist daughter has often told me, “Why do you want to buy a house of your own?” taking the wind out of my ambition.

A lot of us don’t even have the privilege of that ambition. Being a woman who knows what she wants and asks for it is like resisting hydraulic presses pushing into you from all sides. Growing up, we’re given a roadmap to follow. College, some job that gives us a sense of stability so we can add it to our CVs that we upload to matrimonial websites. Then comes marriage, kids, death.

Between pleasing ourselves and the people around us, we lose sense of who we want to be. I crushed my competitive side to come across as less aggressive and more agreeable. I smiled more when asked to. I controlled my temper because my anger was considered invalid. I conform, but at the cost of being unhappy with myself.

“Did I settle?” plays on loop in my head and infuriates me. And now I am just angry. Angry that I wasn’t told to stand up for myself more. Angry that I have to work thrice as much for half the pay, because it mattered to me to be perfect. Angry that I have been made to feel like a stranger in my own mind when I express this anger.

You’re good enough. You’re more. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong.

But there is one thing that keeps me going – the women around me who push me and whom I push in return to be better than I am. If so many of us feel this way, maybe we need to take up for each other.

I encouraged a colleague to quit because she was being paid less than a male counterpart. I told my mom to go ahead and save her money for diamonds. I told her to do her MA at the age of 50. I told my best friend to go back and ask for more money at a new job.

And often, they have returned the favour. My mother insisted that I stand my ground in a room with bosses who try to put me down. My female friends held my hand as I wept to them about fighting my own doubts.

Maybe that’s what our schools and workplaces need so desperately. This sisterhood which we reserve for our friends needs to extend to the boardroom. We need more women who support the ambitions of other women, before it wears all of us down.

Often, I go back to that recitation competition in my mind and ask myself if that’s the moment that could have changed the way I feel now. I realise that this is what I wish I had heard then (and maybe you need to hear it too):

“You worked hard. You stayed up way past your bedtime to learn to recite a poem to the best of your abilities and you were better than everyone else who performed. If anyone ever tells you that you don’t deserve something you have earned through sheer hard work, do not listen to them. You’re good enough. You’re more. And if anyone tells you otherwise, they’re wrong. Never be ashamed of a well-deserved win. Enjoy it.”