I am not going to name names, that wouldn’t be fair. But I am fed up with people accusing prominent female activists of being careerists.

It might just be that I’ve noticed it more, but in the last few months alone I can think of a number of times in which someone has said to me that one of the prominent woman in one of the various progressive organisations I’m involved with is ‘a bit of a careerist’, or insinuated such.

In the same period, I don’t remember anyone saying this to me about a man. Now, this isn’t a scientific study, and it could well just be coincidence. But I don’t think it is. So, here are a few thoughts in response.

When we say ‘careerist’, I take this to mean they are seeking a career within the movement – whether in elected politics, or as a journalist, or working for an NGO. More to the point, there is an assumption that they are willing to put their career before what’s best for the movement. Clearly there is no implication that they are only interested in money or power – it would be easier to be a banker or a Blairite. The accusation is that they seem a bit too keen on these things.

Why would people accuse women of this more often than men? It seems to me that there are three reasons.

First, we are not used to seeing women being personally ambitious. Everyone has an ego – some display it flamboyantly, some hide it away, but we all have one. Men are encouraged to display ours. Women aren’t. So when women do, we notice it.

I suspect that, subconsciously, we are brought up to find it a little more distasteful when we perceive women to be looking out for their careers. In this sense, calling a woman ‘careerist’ is a little bit like calling her ‘a slut’. When men are promiscuous, famously, people don’t really mind. When women are, society frowns on them. The role of the woman, we are brought up to believe, is the loyal wife, the loving mother. Promiscuity is a challenge to that, as is the ambition to have a career.

Of course, in most types of career, people accept that their socially constructed discomfort at women’s ambition is sexist, and so they don’t openly express it – or even admit it to them(our)selves. They(we) just find every possible back channel through which to discriminate, whilst convincing them(our)selves that they are in favour of equality. But in the context of left activism and politics, where careerism is generally seen as a bad thing, the distaste at women being ambitious or successful can be masked in the general distaste of ambition and success. We are to careerism what the Catholic church is to promiscuity: because we theoretiaclly object to it in all cases, it’s OK to cricise women for it in particular.

This is perhaps accentuated by the ways women are pushed to behave. In order to have a career in, well, anything, women need to work harder at it than men do, and perhaps to be more ‘competative’. Given that careerism is an accusation levied as a result not of success, but of visible effort, it is no surprise that women are seen to work harder. If you wish to have a job doing what you love, and what you love is your political activism, and if you happen to be a woman, then you probably do need to work harder at securing and keeping that job than does a man. And so you are more likely to be seen to be working for your own career.

Whatever the reason, it is a dangerous trait. If we throw rocks at women who seek leadership positions, or who stumble into them, or who become prominent for whatever reason, how will we ever get enough women in leadership positions?

Adam Ramsay

About Adam Ramsay

Adam is Co-Editor of Open Democracy UK and a green activist based in Edinburgh. He co-founded Bright Green in 2010.