the art of being an ambitious female
I was sitting at an Italian restaurant with two male friends, whom I adore, when the conversation turned from my love life to the lack of female tech entrepreneurs and CEOs.
My friends – both of whom are founders and CEOs of tech companies – were quick to agree that women choose not to pursue that kind of existence. “They see the stress and the hours we work,” said one, “and they just don’t want it. Especially once they start thinking about having a family.”
“You can’t put in the kind of hours required of a CEO or a start-up,” said my other friend, “and be a good parent. You just can’t.”
Both men nodded sagely.
I found this ironic, since both of them were the fathers of toddlers. Were they declaring themselves to be bad parents?
Somehow I doubt it.
So it was with interest that I read about Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s comments to Charlie Rose the other night that women aren’t ambitious enough to get into the offices and boardrooms of corporate power. Until women are as ambitious as men, says Sandberg, “women aren’t going to achieve as much.”
These comments drew ire and disdain and snorts of “Red herring!” from some women online (including a remark about how Sandberg is “out of touch”).
Sandberg isn’t denying that ambitious women face unique challenges. She recognizes that success and likeability are positively correlated for men – but negatively correlated for women. (And I couldn’t help thinking that some of the online comments, by women, dismissing Sandberg as a mindless puppet for her male employers, were only feeding into this idea that successful women have no soul and questionable self-centered motivations.)
But she is challenging women to assume full responsibility for their own success – not because she’s “out of touch” but because, as any Brian Tracy self-help book will tell you — or writer and financial coach Barbara Stanny, who wrote THE SECRETS OF SIX-FIGURE WOMEN — that is what successful people do. They assume an internal locus of control: that their own actions determine their fate (whether or not this is always true, it is empowering).
Men don’t have much of a problem owning their victories (“we are awesome!”). But women, Sandberg points out, tend toward an external locus of control. They attribute their success to external factors: to luck, or help from someone else. They defer and self-deprecate and apologize and shrink to fit. In an environment that judges you on the sense of personal power you project – or don’t — this hurts us, and undercuts our chances for advancement.
I learned to shrink to fit in my last year of high school. English class: I had a passion and a talent for the subject, and I was kicking ass. Thing was, the marks on our assignments were public – posted with regularity on the back wall – and it became apparent that I was throwing off the curve, that the teacher favored me.
Looking back, I wish I could have just said to myself, I am awesome!, and shrugged it off.
But I wanted to be liked.
So I played myself down. Acted shy and embarrassed when the teacher asked me to read my work to the class. Took up as little space as I possibly could. Apologized.
Shrank to fit.
What we pretend to be, we have a way of becoming. By acting shy, insecure, uncertain, self-doubting – I became exactly those things, and carried them into adulthood. Once, when I remarked to my therapist that I had never “played dumb” as a teenager, she gently corrected me. “That was your version of playing dumb,” she said.
So I think about that now: how I swapped a big chunk of self-esteem for my classmates’ approval. I could risk being hated, or develop the habit of diminishing myself. It never occurred to me that there might have been a range of alternatives between those two options.
But I disagree with Sandberg. I don’t think the question that we should be asking is, Are women as ambitious as men?
Because I think the answer is: Hell yes.
I’ll say it again: HELL YES. WE ARE AS AMBITIOUS.
But…. how do we do ambition? How to be ambitious, when you’re a woman, and those two things effectively cancel each other out?
That, I think, is what trips up so many of us.
And our ambition…gets eroded, dispersed, faded away, thwarted, deflected over time. Who were you, anyway, to think you could have that or be that? Time to grow up and get with the program. Be realistic. Good enough isn’t good enough for you; if you can’t do it perfectly, you just won’t do it.
When a man is ambitious – and successful and powerful – he is leaning that much more into what it means to be a man.
But when a woman is ambitious, she cuts against the grain of her gender. You can’t be ambitious and feminine, so you have to give up one or the other — or redefine them both, and invent yourself in the process.
A man is defined through his work, but a woman is defined through her roles and relationships to others: she becomes a shifting dynamic of wife, mother, lover, daughter, others, Other.
Ambition, however, is central to the self. It is that inner voice speaking up through your core. For a woman to honor that, to stay true to herself, to follow that voice wherever it leads her…means she has to pull away from what it means to be the angel of the house, the good girl, the nurturer and server and self-sacrificer who puts her own needs last, who learns to disconnect from that inner voice until it disappears beneath the demands and expectations of others.
Virginia Woolf writes about how she had to “strangle the angel of the house” before she could get down to business and create the works that would make her name.
The ambitious woman still has to kill off the ‘good girl’ in order to express herself fully in the world and move toward her destiny
(and not get eaten alive).
An ambitious woman is a rebel and a trailblazer. She seeks to define the meaning of her own life and her own damn self – rather than be defined by others.
She comes to her own terms with womanhood.
The best indicator of a woman’s future success isn’t her IQ or GPA or the diversity of her portfolio: it’s her choice of a life partner (if, that is, she chooses to have one).
Whether he is genuinely supportive of her goals (and ‘tolerate’ does not equal ‘support’). Whether he assumes his fair share of housework and childcare. Whether he’s willing to be the stay-at-home dad. Chances are he is not the master of the universe type, with the wealth and prestige that go along with that. Chances are he’s a rebel — just not the kind that comes with a leather jacket and sexy slouch, but the willingness to be the only daddy at the mommy-and-me-classes (where, Sandberg observes, “the other mommies often won’t speak to him”).
But if you’re a young and ambitious female, you might not know to look for this. You might, instead, gravitate to the celebrated princes of the culture, the so-called eligible bachelors, who are revered and tough-minded and work all the time and may or may not be capable of empathy, who offer a lifestyle but not necessarily a real relationship. Who pay lip service to the idea of equality until the babies arrive, and then take it as a given that you will of course sacrifice your less-valuable career and your economic independence because you can’t put in that kind of workweek and be a good parent. And you realize that sure, you can maybe have it all — so long as you also do it all – and you didn’t sign up for that.
“The problem is this; women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world. The numbers tell the story quite clearly. Of 190 Heads of State, 9 are women; Of all the people in Parliament in the world, 13% are women. In the Corporate sector, women at the top, C-level jobs, Board seats, tops out at 15-16%…Even in the Non-Profit world, a world we sometimes think of as being led by more women, women at the top are about 20%”.
“We also have another problem, which is that women face harder choices between professional success and personal fulfillment…Of married Senior Managers; 2/3 of the married men had children and 1/3 of the married women had children.”
She offers 3 pieces of advice to women:
1. Sit at the table
(If you’re in the game, then be in the game. Sit at the table of power. Don’t slouch off to the sidelines.)
2. Make your partner a real partner
(Negotiate with your partner so that housework and childcare are fairly divided.)
3. Don’t leave before you leave
(Don’t mentally check out of your career, lean back and coast, just because you want a family one day and plan to take a leave of absence. Climb as high as you can, so that you leave from the strongest position possible — which will increase your odds of successfully stepping back into the workforce.)
She also delivered the keynote at Barnard College’s 119th Commencement ceremony. Addressing approximately 600 members of Barnard’s Class of 2011, she said:
“…never let your fear overwhelm your desire. Let the obstacles in your path be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”
We should never again shrink to fit. We should know our worth – and charge for it. We should take up as much space as we can, and know that the world is better for it. We should dream bigger, reach higher, go for more money, more power, more meaning. We should put ourselves out there, and speak up, because when we tell our stories, we give others permission to tell their stories, and bring depth and diversity to the public discourse.
And to those who would look at us askance and say, who are you to aspire to greatness, who are you to be so selfish, we should say –
— we are fucking AWESOME .