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Why I Hate the Word Desperate

Originally published in 2020 on The Woman's Network blog.

There’s nothing worse than the D-word. The dreaded label which signals to everyone that you’re too insecure, like someone hung a “Beware of Dog” sign on your back (you’re the dog). It tells people you’re too much , and that they should stay away lest they want rabies.

No one wants to be called desperate. To be the one wanting approval from someone who doesn’t want you back, be it a potential employer, friend, or significant other. To want it so badly and so obviously, you’re near guaranteed never to get it. 

We know desperation is associated with desire; it means you’re going after something. But the line between welcome and unwelcome persistence can get blurry. 

Imagine a college student eager for an internship. The competition is tough, but he makes himself stand out by sending an email to the hiring manager every week or so with updates on grades, projects, and other accomplishments. Imagine an employee that has been working the same job for years––one he’s objectively great at––only to never see a promotion. So he pitches himself. Again. And again. And again. In either situation, is he desperate or driven?

Most people would probably say he’s driven. He’s got goals. Ambitions. Places to go, and things to do. He’s taking his future into his own hands. Good on him! Cheers! Huzzah! 

But what if he was a she? 

There seems to be a link between women and desperation. Likely, the most well-known example of this is the trope of the desperate single girl. She pops up in TV shows, books, and rom-coms like my best friend’s favorite: He’s Just Not That Into You. She’s the character who stops at nothing to win over the object of her affection. And we are told to fear her. And we are told to fear being her. 

Pop culture often advises women to be The Cool Girl:

All in an effort to avoid being called, you guessed it, desperate. 

Does this mentality transfer into the workplace? Is a woman’s tenacity as welcome as a man's, or does it backfire?

Men and women hold gendered roles. This is not news; wenowdis. We traditionally expect men to fill leadership roles because we expect a strong leader to be assertive, and we expect this type of assertion to come from men. It's cyclical.

Should someone stray from their role, it surprises us. This surprise can induce cognitive confusion, leaving us unsettled. When a woman is assertive, it challenges psychological stereotypes, and, in short, freaks us out. 

This Freaky Friday moment leaves many people reaching for labels. She’s crazy! She’s butch! She’s desperate! She’s a witch! She’s a desperate witch!

But why is desperate the word we reach for when someone wants something? Desperate is derived from the Latin desperatus, which means “deprived of hope.” When we’re actively chasing our goals, isn’t hope the thing that propels us?

Ambition must be nurtured and encouraged in women––not because they naturally lack it, but because they are often told to suppress it. Studies show that, in companies demonstrating higher gender equality, the ambition gap between men and women is significantly smaller. Moreover, women in such workspaces demonstrate higher rates of ambition in general, compared to women in more patriarchal workspaces:

The following is a generalization, of course, but, ultimately: Should a woman feel her ambition is welcome, she is more likely to actively climb the ladder. Should she feel suppressed by her work environment, she may suppress her ambition in turn. 

"Desperate” implies pursuing something despite lack of hope. Working women, without hope, are unlikely to pursue new opportunities, because they’re rational; they know that demonstrating ambition in a heavily patriarchal workspace is often a “desperate” act (not to mention, facing constant rejection can be exhausting).

Desperation seems not to be a reflection of the individual, but of their environment. In a healthy and fair workspace, largely no one seems desperate, because ambition is nurtured. And in the presence of hope, no act is desperate. It’s in toxic and unjust work environments that ambition morphs into desperation. 

So if you’re afraid of being called desperate, ask yourself why that is. And maybe you’ll find that you’re not hopeless; your environment is. 

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