Katherine Zappone really wanted that envoy gig, even if it was a makey-up one. So, she went out and got it.
After losing her Dáil seat in the 2020 General Election, she quickly contacted Paschal Donohoe about “a future in international organisations”.
She then went after Simon Coveney, contacting him often, persistently, and even asking to be introduced to megastar Samantha Power, who heads the United States Agency for International Development, about the possibility of her getting a job with them too. Eventually.
I read her string of pushy, careerist, calculating messages with a mix of awe and admiration.
Here was a woman with her sights firmly set on an international job that she hoped would lead her onto other bigger international jobs, and playing the big boys in Government like fiddles.
Disclaimer: I think that Zappone’s special envoy appointment was pure cronyism. And her Merrion Hotel garden/schmoozing party – all strictly ‘legal’, maybe – left those of us who spent months of this year separated from dear family members feeling like a pack of foolish plebs. But I still respect her ‘go get ‘em’ attitude.
Blatant female ambition like Katherine Zappone’s is rarer than hens’ teeth. Words like assertive, ruthless, persistent and bossy are often used to describe a woman who wants too much, and women spend our whole working life hiding from these words.
The pandemic has made a bad situation even worse. According to CNBC and SurveyMonkey’s new Women at Work survey, more than half of the female participants said they feel burned out at least some of the time and more than a third said they’ve thought about quitting their job over the past year.
These factors have also led to women feeling even less ambitious when it comes to their careers, with 42pc of working women today describing themselves as “very ambitious”, down from 54pc in the Women at Work survey released in March 2020.
But since time began, ambitious women have been regarded as a bad thing. And this nasty trope played perfectly into the hands of the patriarchy – demonise female ambition and they won’t come after men’s jobs.
You might say it’s too easy to blame sexism for women’s lack of ambition. But even today you’ll see misogyny bubbling out in the comments section of articles or Twitter threads about successful women. Search the ‘Katherine Zappone’ hashtag online and you’ll see no sentiments – however crude or nasty – are off limits.
It’s the reason girls don’t shout out the answer in class, even when we know we are correct. It’s why we downplay our achievements, embarrassed we might have accomplished something in our job. And it’s probably one of the reasons why we are excluded from boardrooms as we give the credit to ‘the team’ even if our blood and sweat are smeared all over the project.
It’s not success itself that puts people off – it’s female ambition itself that is seen as an ugly thing. When ambition comes from women, it makes some people very comfortable. We tend to like unassuming successful women, aw-shucks-ing their way up the career ladder. There still isn’t an acceptable way to voice our hunger for money, for power or for influence. It’s complicated.
We reach for high marks and for university degrees. In school, girls tend to do better than boys – female students outperformed males in traditional exams, on average, by 5.7, 5.9 and 6.5pc respectively in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Then as we start working, the men around us get promoted faster and are paid more. The statistics are well known: at the top especially, women are nearly absent, and our numbers are barely increasing. Our career trajectories still look very different from a man’s.
Even in 2021, female graduates still expect to earn up to 14pc less than males, with those entering the legal profession experiencing the largest gap in salary expectations, according to research published last week by Universum for IrishJobs.ie.
The research, conducted amongst 10,043 third-level students, suggests a clear disparity in salary expectations between the two genders, particularly across law (14pc), business and economics (8pc) and natural sciences (8pc). Even health and medical categories had a 7pc salary expectation gap. Little wonder that men occupy 87pc of CEO positions here.
Meena Harris – Kamala’s niece – is the author of Ambitious Girl, a children’s book dedicated to girls who’ve been told they’re “too much” or too ambitious. She told Elle magazine: “I hope this will be taught in homes, where all too often girls are sheltered and supervised, taught to value humility and politeness over drive and persistence – at the risk of being seen as ‘too this’ or ‘too that’.”
Read it to your daughter and raise her to be ruthlessly ambitious.
Stop trying to hide your own ambition. Be brave. Be bold. Go after that job you’ve always wanted. That pay rise. That promotion. That bonus. Don’t apologise for your success. You owe it to yourself and to women everywhere.
If you look past the wrongdoings in the Zappone affair – and there are lots of wrongdoings – every woman in Ireland could do with being a bit more like Katherine.