the secret dharma of women





Sometimes you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Women in my generation grew up with the message you can be anything you want to be….except when you can’t. That last part was beamed at us through images of successful women who are harried, lonely and miserable and successful women who realized they forgot to have families and successful women who are mocked in the media for their less-than-supermodel appearance and “castrating” nature.

A book came out with a title that said it all. Although the message was pro-women and pro-ambition, the title was AM-BITCH-OUS. (Later changed.)

Even when the word ‘bitch’ is supposedly reclaimed and framed in positive terms – embrace your inner bitch! – you can’t blame a woman for shrugging her shoulders and saying, Well, maybe not so much.

The problem is that bitches aren’t likeable. The problem is that likeability plays an important role in success: if you aren’t likeable, it’s a lot harder to get ahead. The problem is that, for women, the more successful she is, the more she is perceived as being “like a man” – out for her own interests instead of sacrificing herself to serve the needs of others – which makes her an object of general distrust.

People don’t want to do business with people they distrust.


So women won’t ask for raises or negotiate on their own behalf, knowing intuitively that it might damage their reputation and hurt them in the long run. (Then of course women get criticized for refusing to ask for raises or negotiate for themselves, which implies that the so-called glass ceiling is conveniently their fault.)

I suspect that among the relatively small number of women who rose to fame in the last century or so (outside of acting/modeling), a disproportionate percentage of them were total narcissists.


Ayn Rand and Coco Chanel spring to mind: women with bold and visionary points of view and the courage to defy a culture that would keep them in their place. They would have been regarded, by many, as freakish spawns of hell — and they would not have given a damn. The only opinion that truly matters to a narcissist is the narcissist’s.

(I once became friends with one of the most notorious figures of pop culture, idolized by some but loathed and despised by many. Happily for him, he was narcissistic enough to be oblivious to much of the contempt and criticism that came his way. He saw himself as a hero – maligned and misunderstood, fighting the hypocritical powers-that-be – and the idea that others might not was mystifying to him. But I digress.)

Most women aren’t narcissists, and if forced to choose between being successful and being liked or loved, they’ll come down on the side of relationships every time. Given that the quality of your happiness and even your health depends upon the quality of your relationships, this doesn’t seem like a choice women make so much as an act of psychological survival.


I don’t believe that women are inherently less ambitious than men. Anyone who thinks that females aren’t interested in status and power should take a refresher course in junior high social politics. I certainly don’t believe that women are inherently less creative than men (if Shakespeare had a sister, she got waylaid by housework, pregnancy and childraising).

I believe that men and women both are biologically wired to compete for status (to ensure the survival of ourselves and our offspring) and to play and create (to ensure that we learn, practice and advance as individuals and as a species).

We grow up in a culture that quickly divorces our ambitions from the notion of being feminine unless they are channeled into appearance, securing and keeping a mate, and motherhood. In fact, we’re criticized if we don’t exhaustively strive in those areas, let alone step out of the race altogether.


We are allowed to advocate for others. Studies show that when it comes to negotiating for other people, women prove just as capable as men.

We’re just not allowed to advocate for ourselves.

But if this is the problem, maybe it’s also the solution.

Maybe the problem is how we frame ambition in the first place. click to tweet

We don’t seem to connect the success of our lives as individuals to the success of ourselves as a group – or as a gender. For those who think that ambition and power are overrated, overly masculine notions that should be eschewed at all costs, I give you a paragraph from Sheryl Sandberg’s book LEAN IN:


“The night before Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to lead the women’s protests that toppled Liberia’s dictator, she was at a book party in my home…A guest asked her how American women could help those who experienced the horrors and mass rapes of war in places like Liberia. Her response was four simple words: ‘More women in power.’….Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” (emphasis is mine)

Sandberg advises women to “think personally, act communally”: to preface negotiations by

“explaining that they know that women often get paid less than men so they are going to negotiate rather than accept the original offer. By doing so, women position themselves as connected to a group and not just out for themselves; in effect, they are negotiating for all women.”

Sandberg presents this as a personal strategy, but I can’t help thinking that it’s true.


The first time I ever blogged about female ambition, more than one woman suggested that we come up with another word for ‘ambition’. They found the concept that distasteful.

I think now of Stephen Cope’s definition of dharma. Dharma, he writes, “is a potent Sanskrit word that is packed tight with meaning” such as path, teaching or law.

For his own purposes he defines dharma primarily as vocation or sacred duty.

The idea that you can be anybody you want to be – whether you’re a man or a woman – is a popular cultural myth. You arrive in this world encoded with certain gifts – and certain limitations. You can identify and develop these gifts and find ways of circumventing your limitations in order to become, not anyone, but fully who you already are.

You come home to your true self.

Above all, Cope stresses that dharma means truth. To fulfill your dharma is to live out your personal truth.

But dharma is twofold. It’s not enough to express and develop your gifts.


You must take your gifts into the world in order to serve and contribute. (What good is a cure for cancer if you keep it to yourself?) How you do this depends on the call of the times: the context, your context, of time and place and events. Part of discovering your dharma is listening for that call and the willingness to hear it in the first place.

Dharma also shifts and changes as your own life changes: the quest to fulfill your dharma might not happen just once, but multiple times throughout your lifetime. There might be a point where you say that you don’t have the time or energy or space or money or youth; dharma says none of that matters. No excuses. It is your sacred duty to completely and utterly embody your own unique brand of dharma.

Because ambition – or dharma – doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Actions ripple out and through a much larger picture. We are all knitted together in what American philosopher Alan Watts envisioned as a multidimensional spiderweb. Imagine it covered with dewdrops, he wrote. And inside every dewdrop is the reflection of every one dewdrop, and inside that reflection is the reflection of every one dewdrop, and so on, and so on….

Point being: any change in a single dewdrop becomes reflected in the whole.

Our actions, writes Cope,

“connect us to the soul of the world. They create the world. Small as they may appear, they have the power to uphold the essential inner order of the world.”

As women, we might roll our eyes at the notion of a global sisterhood. Hell, you might be one of those women who likes to say that she prefers the company of guys. It doesn’t matter. You’re in the web regardless.

Four simple words: more women in power.

Maybe your dharma is to claim it for yourself. Maybe your dharma is to help another woman to power: to inspire or mentor or smooth the way. When you win for yourself, you win for other women. When you advance, you take other women with you.

We got the vote. We got the Pill. Now let’s get the power.

Mar 23, 2013

15 comments · Add Yours

I agree with the broader point you’re making (and I do think that more women in power is a good thing) but you’re far too simplistic with your discussion of Dharma. You may not be able to become anything you want to be (though I’m not certain this is strictly true) but you were not “born to be” any one thing. Your genetics, family, social upbringing, education and socio-economic status make a wide range of career and life choices available to you. It does not include everything under the sun, but is definitely not just one thing either. You weren’t born to be one person and you don’t have one true self. You have a range of possibilities in front of you and you have the intelligence to decide which of those paths you want to walk. You even have the power to decide that you want a different path and try to move yourself in that direction (though you may not be successful).

The idea of Dharma (like any serious philosophical idea) is complex and nuanced and it’s application to real life even more so. Boiling it down to “the person you were born to be” is a recipe for disaster. Keep in mind that the same notion has been twisted to justify the caste system and strict social stratification and segregation. Needless to say, that is exactly the opposite of the point that you’re trying to make.


Great ideas have many nuances but an elegant simplicity at core. And yes, we can argue over the literal truth of a “true self” but people know when they’re living a fulfilled life that feels true to who they are — and when they’re not. So let’s use ‘true self’ as a metaphor for a way of being and living that feels authentic.

If I am six feet tall and two hundred and fifty pounds, I can’t become a jockey. If I was born with the perfect body for a dancer, but don’t have the passion or drive to pursue it, I won’t become a dancer. It’s not rocket science.

My point — or rather Cope’s point — is that what would seem like an overwhelming range of possibilities actually sifts down to what you’re good at and what you enjoy — since mastery probably isn’t possible without both talent + dedication — and the opportunities you are given or can make for yourself in your time and place. There are many, many different ways to manifest your dharma in the world, but the kernel of the dharma — what Cope refers to as The Gift, that mix of talent, ability, passion — doesn’t change. I don’t think I’m justifying the caste system by saying this.


I totally resonate with your use of the word ‘dharma’ in describing our life’s work, our purpose, our reason. I also shy away from the word ambition because it is so masculine and there are strong connotations of striving for money, at least for me. Yes our dharma may take us on many twists and turns, but it should be us using our gifts and sharing them with the world.


Enjoyed this post, thank you.
Are you familiar with Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching? Might be a good reference for you. It keeps coming to mind when I read your blog:


@Jane Maru I’m not, but I’m going to check it out. (I think I read something about the tao of dating once…)



i had this observation a while ago, i can only be mmm, you know STRONG when am defending an idea/ideal/somebody else. i thought it was just me but apparently it got to do with being a woman.

About the talent thing, i bet you need to discuss the finding talents in depth

and fully addressing the caset system thing :)) why? because even if its not voiced , this is one of the many limiting beliefs and dogmas that block us outta our talent

nice blog :))


Here’s the thing about dharma: no one can decide it for you. No one can dictate your dharma — although they might help you identify your gifts and develop them. One of the points of dharma is that it’s better to fail at your own than to succeed at someone else’s. In other words, what your dharma is, is up to you to claim, own, and declare.

Talents — uncovering them, developing them — would make for many many blog posts. But I’m happy to go there if readers want. Some great books on the subject.


Thank you for addressing the topic of women and ambition. 20 years ago I dreamed of a career in Hollywood (behind the scenes) but a summer internship introduced me to woman after woman that had become hard and cold in their efforts to stay competitive in a male-dominated business (most of the men, on the other hand, were really friendly). The thought of giving up part of myself in order to make movies didn’t appeal, so I abandoned that particular creative dream.

I’m currently on a quest for my own dharma right now. Your words continue to encourage me on my journey.


Great post.

I’m interested though – who was the “notorious figure of pop culture” that you became friends with?


@justine This resonates with me and reminds me of Jim Collins personal hedgehog of three interlocking circles:

What am I absolutely passionate about?
What will people pay me to do?
What am I genetically encoded to do?


I dunno. I choose ambition and success over just about anything. But I do get what your saying.


I wouldn’t presume to speak for all women. I do think that women who would make the kind of statement that you just did are few and far between — and the world needs more of them. all best.


Nice post. Thanks. In return, I posted something especially for you:



ha. thanks! i’m sure she was a total nightmare in her personal life but god, she was awesome.


When I found out I was pregnant, I instinctively started weeding out all the negativity and people who did not bring out my best. I got rid of exes, got rid of weak, gossipy friends, and stood up for myself. I got told “wow, you are being a bitch.” Sometimes this was said in negative tones, some times in positive tones. It fascinates me that a woman who is standing up for herself and demanding the best for herself is considered a bitch.


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