Women in power: (from left) Julie Collins, Kate Ellis, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Jenny Macklin and Health Minister Tanya Plibersek at their swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Wolter Peeters
For too many women, ambition is still a foul-smelling word. One we need to shy from, disown, walk past in the street as though we cannot remember its name. I don't mean here the grubby, self-serving and ruthless kind of ambition we associate with cartoonish high achievers. I mean simply a desire to stretch your mind around the impossible, to create something great, be the best at what you do.
Ambition is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ''something that you want to do or achieve very much''.
Where was the discussion about the men and families they leave behind when they fly to Canberra several times a year?
Yet ambition is the great unnamed problem for modern women. We have it in spades as little girls, and even teenagers. But studies show that once we enter workplaces, walk down the aisle and bear children, it fades and chokes. We begin to see it as selfish, or indulgent, and get more criticism than men do for pursuing goals outside the home.
"Research found just over half of women thought women who stayed at home were better mothers in 2001, but by 2005 three-quarters agreed." Photo: AFR
The psychiatrist Anna Fels wrote a seminal piece about this in 2004 in the Harvard Business Review. ''For women - far more than for men,'' she wrote, ''the decision to pursue an interest is reconsidered repeatedly and often abandoned.''
Surely part of this is the fact that we hammer ambition when we continually tell girls, not boys, they cannot ''have it all'' and are selfish for wanting to both work and bear children. Or when we view ''work-life balance'' as an impossible, personal problem - and for women, a continual failure.
With inflexible workplaces and expensive childcare, sometimes it gets too hard. A recent More magazine poll found ''in the search for balance, women are sacrificing ambition''. Only 15 per cent were more ambitious than 10 years ago - 43 per cent were less ambitious. Three-quarters said they would not apply for their boss's job.
Other data backs this up. ''Declining ambition among women is a trend,'' says Ellen Galinsky, the president of the Families and Work Institute, citing a recent study which found that American women aged 35-44 who wanted a job with greater responsibility had dropped from 40 per cent in 1992 to 35 per cent in 2008.
In Australia, too, in the past 15 years, more people have adopted views hostile to working mothers. University of Queensland research found just over half of women thought women who stayed at home were better mothers in 2001, but by 2005 three-quarters agreed.
It is in this context we must read reports of the new cabinet appointments. The headline was arresting: ''Gillard: Nicole, Tanya and Julie understand the challenges Australian women face as they seek to build a career''.
Next to it, the box listed the number and ages of the children of the new Health Minister, the Minister for the Status of Women, Community Services, Indigenous Employment and Economic Development - and our first female Attorney-General. Also included was their marital status.
Curiously, it was our first female, childless Prime Minister who framed the story this way, when she said: ''It's important that Australian women can look at the decision-making of their nation and say that their life experience is represented there.'' Indeed it is, although I'd hate to think Gillard was undermining her own capacity to represent women with kids by saying so.
The fact that there are a record number of women - and now mothers, with the arrival of Penny Wong's baby - in cabinet is excellent news. On a policy level, you would hope they might fight hard for more funding for childcare, for example. On a symbolic level, it shows it can be done.
Yet, frustratingly, our ambitions are also curtailed when women are constantly questioned about the cost, and impossibility, of their achievements. It has long been the conventional wisdom that the families of male politicians sacrifice, while the families of women politicians suffer. This means that, with each promotion or success, women are forced to apologise and explain how they do it. (The answer is simple: ''I have help.'')
Where was the discussion about the men and families they leave behind when they fly to Canberra several times a year? Bill Shorten, now the Workplace Relations Minister, has a daughter who will turn two in just a few days. How will he celebrate that? How does his wife manage his long hours and travel? He will, after all, be looking after our workplaces - where crucial decisions are made about when and how mothers can actually work. Should his home life matter?
Another winner in the reshuffle, Greg Combet (Industry, Innovation and Climate Change), also has three kids and has said his second marriage broke up because of the pressures of politics.
Studies have found men have had the greatest rise in anxiety about work-life balance recently - and yet, while this is troubling and important, it is something we do not ask them about.
Nick Sherry said he resigned this week partly because he had three young kids and, at 56, ''you do think about these issues a little more''. All of us would benefit from improved, flexible work hours.
I'm delighted there are more mothers in cabinet. But really, we voted for them because we want them to be good politicians. Visionary, effective - and ambitious, too.
Julia Baird is the author of Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians.