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.


Sheryl says:

“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 .

Nov 13, 2011

43 comments · Add Yours

The difficulty is that we live in a society that says *individuals* are responsible for their success or failure. The exceptions who succeed despite everything conspiring against them are held up as models of aspiration (you can do and be anything you want – look at So and So – he or she made it and so can you) and we all buy into it. My point is that it is difficult to succeed in a world where the cards are stacked against you, whether male or female. IMHO the question is not about doing or being ambitious, it’s about what the western world does with that ambition, and the answer is: not much.


It is hard as hell to be successful, and you do pay a price for it. Ambition doesn’t guarantee success.

…it also depends on how you define ‘success’.


Love this, Justine! I spent way too many years in a profession surrounded by men who always had to find fault with women doing the same job. Whether it was because the female was physically smaller than “the boys” or the female was considered attractive, (or feminine) she was NEVER good enough. Throughout my years in newsrooms, bullshit like that about female colleagues and myself constantly flowed from the mouths of men (and some women). At one point, during my younger years, I wondered if my ambition to continue on the job (which I loved dearly) was a mistake because, in so many ways, I was made to feel like I would never measure up to the men. So, I totally feel the words that you wrote! After careful consideration, I left the business and those good ol’ boys behind with no regrets (traditional journalism imploded years ago anyway, right?) and have channeled my career ambitions toward a more creative arena. Now, I am the boss and I hire ambitious women! Yup, women we are fucking awesome!!!


Thank you thank you thank you.
These posts are the reason why I read your blog. I’ve always shrunk myself to fit and it’s something I still struggle with. Waking up this morning to read this makes me feel like I can go out and grab today by the balls.
I got this.


You nailed it, as usual, Justine. Particularly 6: “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.”

And: “chances are he is not the master of the universe type”

And: “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 successful 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.”


I dismissed my unbelievably supportive sweetheart as a “contender” for years (years!) because, being ambitious myself (though granted, no longer so very young), I *thought* I was looking for a celebrated price of the culture. That, after all, is the kind of man I’m drawn to.

And decidedly *not* what my sweetheart is AT ALL.

Eventually, I began to appreciate the benefits of a man who *isn’t* a master of the universe. (For one thing, he actually has time and attention for me. Lots of it.)

Then I began to understand and appreciate what it felt like to be truly supported. For my ambition to follow my heart’s desire to be *encouraged*, not just tolerated.

Ultimately, I was able to compare, as if side by side, the “platonic ideal” of the “master of the universe” man I’d dreamed of, and the real, loving, supportive man in my life, who made my life better in every way possible.

In other words, no comparison.

What I’ve accomplished in the time since my sweetheart entered my life is nothing short of astonishing. It makes me realize how previous partners, whom I *thought* were supportive at the time, in fact held me back in ways both subtle and not-so.

Coming to terms with my ambition, and how to do it, is an ongoing adventure and education. One thing I’m totally clear on, though, is that I will never again shrink to fit the expectations of a man who wants me to embrace anything less than FUCKING AWESOME.


I must read this every – single – day. Thank you Justine! YOU are AWESOME! :) e


I am fucking awesome. Thanks.
I have an awesome husband, too. He has his own career, but if I feel like designing instead of making dinner, he’ll jump in and do it for me.
We have two kids and he has never made me feel like less of a mom when I want to do what I want to do instead of something like folding laundry.


Oooh yes, double yes on the partner piece! I know this is a big one for me personally, and has changed the way my life and business intertwine. I can also see how women who are ambitious/successful choose not to have children, or to delay starting a family. It’s quite the tricky path to navigate with all the historical assumptions that women will be the ones to stay home.


Uh, the “acting dumb” comment REALLY struck a cord with me. I have never in my life acted dumb… or so I thought. But I did act shy and insecure to appear non-threatening and that did have an effect on my confidence. I sometimes still act that way to avoid confrontation.
Here is a link to some quite horrifying statistics, especially the 3. paragraph (Women perform 66 percent of the world’s work, produce 50 percent of the food, but earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property )


Being a women is not the only reason we sometimes “skrink to fit”; our parents are definitely another reason. Who our parents are define how the world looks at us. My father is a preacher. In the Church every movement is scrutinized and you are expected to be perfect and if I wasn’t my father got the brunt of their warth. Outside of the Church the preacher’s kid is always expected to be a wild child. Each extreme annoys me to th ninth degree.

Growing up I could never rebel very much because I realized that life would be easier if you just do what is expected of you, but I did rebel even though it was unconsciously done. I was the tomboy who climbed anything and as I got older I expressed my individualism in other ways. I read constantly, dressed in jeans and boy’s t-shirts, and listened to rock music. I didn’t really care too much about what others thought of me.

Now, an adult, I still face judgement but I don’t have to worry about my choices reflecting bad on my father. I’m in college studing Forensic Chemistry and Criminal Justice and will try to get my PhD.I’m also a mystery writer who hopes to get publish once I graduate. I don’t need to “shrink to fit” anymore and I’m so thankful that I can finally be me.


Justine – I have a beautiful picture of a hammer hitting a nail on the head, which is what I would post here if pics were enabled. You’ve nailed it. The IT is how women shrink or grow themselves by resolving or failing to resolve the dilemma we are presented about either being liked or being self-respecting. But we do not have to accept those terms. We can be well-liked by those who respect the choices we make to be self-respecting and to live in accordance with our own desires and capacities for achievement. Will everyone like us? No. Is that the goal for which we should strive? No. That goal is unachievable anyhow. So best to opt for being the best “me” possible.
And anyhow, it’s way more fun.

I think you will find lots of similar and new arguments for women taking power over themselves in a white paper authored by Jane Perdue and myself, available soon at either one of our website. “Women and the Paradox of Power.”


I am fucking AWESOME


I love so many points in this article, and I have experienced the whole shrink-to-fit phenomenon. But the piece that really struck me — and, if I’m honest, pissed me off — was the transition from the end of section five, which I loved, to the beginning of section 6.

“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.” Right on! You’re singing my tune. But then my heart sank: “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.”

Excuse me?

The best indicator of my future success is my choice of life partner. Um. Well, I don’t have a life partner. And of the women who do marry, about half will get divorced. Is our future success really tied up in our choice of life partner? Sure, who we marry has a huge impact on every aspect of our lives, but is the importance of our choice of life partner any different for us as women than it is for men? I sure hope not!

A man who wants a well-kept house, beautifully raised children, dinner on the table at 6:00 and a perfect hostess of a wife would not want to marry me. I couldn’t provide the type of partnership he is seeking — and I’m pretty damn sure he couldn’t provide me with the type of partnership I am seeking. But for some people, that type of partnership is exactly what they want.

Part of the reason I have such a strong reaction to this is because it brings up a lot of stuff — you know that personal stuff we’ve all got! In my case, I am single. Or more to the point, I am 36 and I am not currently in a relationship and have never been married. I’d like to be in a relationship, but it just hasn’t happened. I’m not too terribly stressed out about it, but it annoys me that there is so much judgement around women who have never been married and are “of a certain age.” Not all of us have chosen this status and not everyone in their late thirties who has never been married put off marriage in favor of a career. I’d love to have both, but I’m not going to marry just for the sake of getting married — or for the sake of my business.

Ambition can be defined in so many ways. It doesn’t just have to be trying to get the six-figure salary and the corner office. I am ambitious. I want to succeed at my business and I do want to make a good living. But I also want some balance — and in time, I think my business can provide me with all of that, regardless of whether I’m single, married, divorced or widowed.


@Erica Holthausen Oh god no, I wasn’t saying or implying that a woman’s success hinges on marriage per se. (It’s probably better that she doesn’t get married, which is why so many women have had to sacrifice their personal life for their career in a way that’s not quite true for men.) Trust me, the LAST thing I would ever say is that a woman should get married just to get married. (I am divorced, and came out of it swearing I would never get married again.)

But if she does marry — the guy has to be a “real partner”, as Sandberg puts it — otherwise she gets saddled with three or four jobs (taking care of him, of the kids, of the house, as well as her career). (And even if you have nannies, etc. — you still have issues of house management, staff management, and you can’t buy your way out of actual relationships with your kids, involvement in their lives.) You only have so much time, energy, focus. Also, a partner who doesn’t support you — is emotionally very difficult to bear.


@justine Thank you for your quick response! A friend once told me that it’s “better to be single than to be in a relationship and wish you were single.” And it’s true. I’ve seen women (and a small number of men) put their dreams and goals on hold for the sake of a non-supportive and sometimes actively abusive relationship. It’s easy to get caught up in the romance of a new relationship or in the fear of being alone and make sacrifices that are so much greater than we realize at the time. It’s up to each of us to really understand what we’re looking for in terms of a partnership. What works for my sister would never work for me — but then, what would work for me, would definitely not work for her. So making the conscious choice is critical. One of the benefits of age is having a better sense of who you are and what you need from the partnership. My being single has also resulted in my creating a new type of partnership — a group of supportive, intelligent business women who meet once a month. Sure, I’d like to be in a romantic relationship with a supportive man, but I can also go out and create the support I need to be a success! Thank you again for your post, your reply and your fearlessness!


@Justine I wish I could hand this every teen girl or young women. There is so much truth in this article! Thank you for sharing!


Great piece Justine!



There is an assumption that this done just to keep women down.
You took it personaly. Work is not a social club.
Don’t get mad if you say treat me like one of the guys or one of the boys and I’m not nice to you.
Women are used to guys just being nice to them; Gentlemanly. Unless it’s a Superior to subordinate mentor relation ship, we don’t normally give preferential treatment to other guys. The job gets done or it didn’t. There are qualifications for every job you ether have them or you don’t.
Life’s not fare. There us no balanced playing field.
If the qualifications are you need upper body strength then you need to work on developing upper body strength or a really kick ass work around. Just realize its going to work for those who already have the upper body strength.
I hope you would hire the most quilified applicant; whether or not they are a man or woman, because if I hire only guys, I’m a misogynistic pig.
Business is conflict. It’s not supposed to be lets all be friends. I had this buddy I worked with, and everybody thought we where going to kill each other someday, but at the end of the day we would go out and have a drink leaving it all at the job site.

My 2 cents,


P.S. What have you done to day to be AWESOME?


@Diane Lee

Their are things in our control, and things out of it. Knowing the diference now there is real power.



@Josh — Wow, Josh, that’s a condescending, arrogant and rather kneejerk response — and you seem to have missed the point, and general gist, of the blog post. :)

I could reply at greater length, but I’m not really here to educate or ‘convince’ you. Although I would suggest that you might want to drop some of the defensiveness and open yourself up to the female perspective — not to judge it, or dismiss it, just to listen. You might learn a thing or two about women!

(And it would make you a better writer.)

my two cents.


“Although I would suggest that you might want to drop some of the defensiveness and open yourself up to the female perspective — not to judge it, or dismiss it, just to listen.”
Are you asking me to “shrink to fit?”
– justina
Condescending and Arrogant, yep that pretty much sums up how guy talk and deal with other guys.
“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.”
– justine.
Sorry I get tired of people whining about life not being fair or they didn’t treat me fairly; which usualy means they didn’t go out of their way to make their life easer.
All I heard from LC was excuses as to why she couldn’t compete and how the boys where mean to her. Her definition (as defined by her actions) womanhood was, I can’t compete with the boys, so I’m not going to play with them.
Justine you seem to banter around the guys point of view, unless you have had a really amazing sex-change operation, I’m going to take my view of what being a guy is over yours.
And another thing how was I being patronizing to LC. Was I mentaly patting her on the head going you poor thing, or was I treating her like an adult, by pointing out where I think she is wrong.



Sorry just realized my P.S. was probably taken the wrongway, and that could be where the charge of patronizing came from.

It wasn’t meant just for LC, but as a general question for everybody.

Oops, Josh sticks his foot in his mouth with the english language again.


Josh, we can agree to disagree here. Best to you.


Great Blog ! glad i found it !


Great post, Justine.
I got into Advanced English by mistake. I walked up to the teacher the first day and told her so. She wouldn’t let me leave. She just said, ‘No, I think you should stay’. Was the best, damned thing she could have said, too. And, I’m also glad I stayed. Maybe, it wasn’t a ‘mistake’ after all? ;)


You said, “The best indicator of a woman’s future success … is her choice of a life partner (if, that is, she chooses to have one).”
It’s also her willingness to forego a relationship and be single; because she can’t find a partner who will be subordinate to her career. When I was getting my Ph.D. in biology, the four biology departments at my University each had one token female faculty member — and each one was single. After I finished my Ph.D. and went to another University for a post-doc, the one female faculty in that department was also single. Academics may be worse, since it’s hard for a couple in the same field to get positions at the same institution.


@justine It is wonderful how you have described things that are often dusted under the carpet not just by men but also women. Probably, it has to do with the way we are brought up. Sometimes, parents do their best to boost their daughter’s confidence and in an attempt to do so, the mother quits her job and the family is happy and successful. The mother’s example leads the daughter to believe that if a family has to be happy and successful, it is necessary to sacrifice or rather, ‘shrink to fit’.

As you’ve mentioned, the first thing every girl/women needs to do is accept the fact that she is fucking good and has a shot at everything. And yeah, we truly need believe int he fact that we are fucking awesome!


Love this post, touches on the many issues that women go through today. I tell myself I’m fucking awesome everyday, not because I don’t feel it, but because I like to look in the mirror and think about my goals…and think that the only way I’m going to achieve those is by being fucking awesome. Looking it is 50% of it, so looking the part is key. The other 50% is my knowledge, which I already know I have…
‘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.’ <-love this, because I've worked hard to be both, I'm driven to succeed, and in a male dominated industry (infrastructure technology), I've worked twice as hard to remain feminine, while maintaining a good reputation in my space. Pros and Cons for a single woman;)
As for a partner: I politely kind of disagree, I have chosen to not want children, for my own reasons, and look for a partner who is just as driven in his own career, who is financially stable, as I am, someone I can learn from and who will drive me to make me better, and hopefully he can learn from me. I'm of the belief that if you love what you do (and I do), then combining work and personal is not really an issue…it's ok, our careers are a big part of our lives. I like to constantly learn from other people, who can make me a better person, and having this in a partner is IDEAL…the challenge is finding a partner who doesn't want children, it's still an expectation for many guys.
Keep it coming, I love your posts:)


Just catching up – wow, great post. I love the quote from Sandberg, it really encompasses what I’ve been feeling lately. And I regularly say that I’m awesome. People think I’m joking. I’m not. … then they started to say I’m immodest, to which I reply, nobody’s perfect and if I have to have a fault, I’ll take that one!


I think you’re wrong in some regards about girls and females having a lack of time disadvantage,

from my personal experience and observations; the somewhat ambitious female doctors, lawyers, engineers who pursue a lofty career corporate promotions and goals seem to have a very common denominator…………… they all hire either a female Filipino, Mexican, or a female live in 40hr/week caretaker from the Far East to do washing, cooking, cleaning, make sure the kids do homework, and end up pay her minimum wages (and sometimes less than even that). The ambitious women seem to do very well and are very successful, but their live in maid is another story.


Mike, I am not wrong. Yes, privileged and professional women hire help, as I acknowledged — I have a full domestic staff (well paid, definitely NOT minimum wage, these are very real professions, the good ones are in demand and you pay competitive rates or else you just go through one nightmare crazy situation after another) — but house management, staff management, involvement with your kids, etc. — they take up time and effort, and in my social milieu it’s the women who deal with these issues, with anything remotely ‘domestic’, not the men, who take little interest and tend not to know just how much work is even involved.

Also, in my experience it’s the husbands, not the wives, who tend not to value the work that domestic + childcare workers do and want to pay them as little as possible. (Not that all men are like that, of course.)

The fact that you would assume that these women are automatically abusing “the help” says a lot, I think. And yes, I am aware that within feminism the oppression of women by other women is an issue and an object of concern. But there are also other ways of oppressing women — like punishing or policing them for the choices they make, whether it’s calling them ‘slut’ or a ‘bad mother’ — when all of us in general are trying to do the best we can with what we know and what we have to work with.


@Melissa Dinwiddie @Melissa Dinwiddie Straying from the point of Justine’s post here, but on behalf of all non-Master of the Universe types, I love your comment.

And @Justine: Women are indeed fucking awesome. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the two different senior women I worked for during the course of my former career were the most inspirational people I’ve ever worked with. They also seemed to invest more heavily in developing and empowering their teams than their male counterparts. Perhaps this is why, although driven and ambitious, they seemed to achieve a reasonable work/life balance while maintaining a steep career trajectory.

Bottom line, I think women have an innate power to inspire and lead through their femininity. Being a woman is your ultimate strength.


@Brett Bee I’d like to think being an individual is my ultimate strength, but fair points otherwise. :)


@Jess Yes, of course, granted :))


Wonderful post! I’ll definitely be sharing it around..
Also, Sheryl Sandberg gave another great talk and expanded her 3 points to 5. I mentioned it here –

Thank you!


Heh heh. I always think I should read the post, read the comments, then go for a healthy walk around the block before commenting. I’ll settle for rereading the comments before committing to send….
I am one of the rebel men you were so kind to mention. My wife has a high-powered job in a very male environment (a Police Department). Before that she was an officer in the RAF, an even more male-centric and Old-Boy riddled arena. She didn’t take those jobs because she was a feminist, or because she had an axe to grind. She took them because she’s naturally a driven and ambitious person. We have three children, and since the first one arrived, I have been the stay-at-home Dad. I don’t have a domestic staff, but I have always done some form of work from home – magazine editor, script reader, proof reader etc.
What bothered me about this article (and it seems weird that we always focus on the negative: sorry Justine, it really rocks and I was glad to be pointed to it) was the idea that you can’t be successful and feminine. Why not? Is it because to be a CEO or whatever you have to be able to tear people’s arms off and beat them to death with the wet end? Or that, to be taken seriously, you mustn’t wear a skirt, or make up?
I know, from my wife’s experience (and, by the way, sixteen years married, both still very happy thanks) that there are still many men in the world of work with stone age attitudes to women. But they are passing on, aren’t they? When my oldest daughter goes out to work, I won’t expect her to be judged on her sex, but on her resume.
When my wife joined the RAF, she was required to sign a document saying she would not get pregnant, because that would make her unfit for duty – the same classification as shooting yourself in the foot to escape the front lines. A few years later, that document was challenged in the Court of Human Rights and overturned.Times change. My wife had three children while in the Air Force, and while she didn’t reach stellar heights there, that was a choice we both made. I have no problem with her putting in the time to go on to greater heights now we’re in the civilian world again. It depends entirely on what she wants.
But I think part of the problem is always dividing the human race into male and female. We insist on saying ‘She’s successful, even though she’s a woman! Isn’t that amazing? Wow! What next, a talking pig?” Make it the norm by treating it as such. Of COURSE women can be successful, and there’s no reason that succcess in business should make them more masculine, or less desireable, or taller or more likely to eat oranges. Does Anita Roddick have hairier legs because she made The Body Shop into an international giant? Did JK Rowling’s husband marry her DESPITE her kicking the world’s ass as a writer? I don’t think so.

Yeah, should’ve gone for that walk. But I feel better now.


I am a liberated man in the sense I don’t categorize or subjugate women in the conventional sense. A woman is of equal value to me in or out of the workplace. If she can do a job, she deserves equal pay and equal respect. I believe there are several women who prove daily they are even more ambitious than men. On facebook, twitter, other social media, you see women constantly promoting themselves and their product. And they do it with a greater intensity than most men. That being said, I believe a woman ( or anyone for that matter ) should pursue and work toward their goals because it is what they really want to do, and not because they want to prove to society that they can do it. Life is too short. Be true to yourself and your dreams, because someday you will wake up and be 55+ years old ( like me ) and if you are not happy with what or who you are, you will be very disappointed.


Though I think @Josh is making an assumption that some women expect to be treated well even when they don’t measure up (which wasn’t at all what Justine was talking about in the original post, nor what other commenters were implying should happen), he does make a good point about the culture of business. It’s a world created by men, and I think a lot of women—myself included—don’t always go into the business world understanding that culture fully. I think men see the world of business more as a sport. It’s competition, and men are raised to be competitive—whereas women of my generation were not (I’m 39.) This is why men can be at each other’s throats during the day and clap each other on the back and go for a drink at night. It really isn’t personal. A book that demystified this for me was NICE GIRLS DON’T GET THE CORNER OFFICE by Lois P. Frankel. She’s written a number of books studying this very culture gap between men and women. The titles of her books (IMHO) are perhaps a little unfortunate, but her books and information are outstanding. I really wish I’d read that book years before I did—it would have saved me a great deal of heartache and trial-and-error (mostly error).

That said, the troubling caveat I’m seeing in the male commenters’ posts are “if the woman can do the job.” In fact, I think that’s the very crux of the issue. She starts talking about ambitious women and the life choices they must make, and every single male commenter here just HAD to point out the caveat “if the woman can do the job.” I think we can safely assume that Justine is talking about highly competent women who can indeed do their jobs. The fact that so many men failed to pick up on that is what makes these conversations so frustrating. What often decides a woman’s success in business isn’t whether she can do the job. It’s whether she knows how to play the game.


Well, I’m a guy and my girlfriend asked me recently if I could name a powerful ambitious women who left a mark on the world and also had children. I was stumped. I looked online for an example and found this website. Interesting article, but to me it seems like a woman’s biological predispositions go against her conscious ambitions; as if a yearning for motherhood could overpower professional goals. Then if motherhood is achieved it finalizes the allocation of time. Any ideas or thoughts? Or maybe of good examples of successful women who have kids?


You were stumped? Are you writing across some time portal where you’re in the 6th century and the rest of us are in the 21st? A question like that really shouldn’t stump you these days, Matei.


Stacy, I don’t mean to start anything (although it might be too late to start anything), but you could have given an example instead of putting Matei down. I think doing research on this topic and asking advice on this blog clearly shows he is a man of the 21st century – and not only because he knows how to use a computer.

As for your question, Matei, a good example is Hillary Clinton. She had her own life and career, became a mother, and continued her career after the birth of her only child. You can read more about it on Wiki because it is quite interesting – she had internal struggle in the perception of losing her identity.

I would also like to disagree with your idea that “a woman’s biological predispositions go against her conscious ambitions; as if a yearning for motherhood could overpower professional goals”. In my professional life, I have witnessed many a PhD wielding mother stay at home while her equally qualified husband works. All I am saying is that ambitious women are likely to marry equally ambitious men, but it may still be expected for the woman to stay at home and tend to the family. Obviously it depends on each individual situation, for example if their was no resource for child care or lack of willing/able grandparents, but it would only be in a perfect world that neither father nor mother get criticized for wanting/needing for any reason to stay home with their child.


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