BPW Foundation's Women Misbehavin' Blog

Well behaved women never make history

Ambition: The Key to Closing the Gender Gap (Really?)

Posted by knbarrett on June 3, 2011

“We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap,” said Sheryl Sandberg in her commencement address at Barnard College.  Sandberg highlighted the gender segmentation across leadership categories.  From heads of state to the board room – women are under-represented in positions of leadership. In her speech, Sandberg called on young women to “think big” and take up leadership positions because, “leadership belongs to those who take it.” She argued that far too many women make career decisions based on future family responsibilities – e.g. medical student who chooses a less demanding specialization. Instead of “leaning back” from a career before it’s even started, Sandberg urged to women to “lean in” to their careers – full speed ahead. She concluded by telling the graduates of her hope that they would all leave with aspirations of running the world because, “Women all around the world are counting on you.”

The speech left me feeling oddly disturbed instead of inspired. There was something troubling about pinning women’s under-representation in leadership roles to their collective lack of ambition.  Not only is the argument uncritical of the external factors that shape women’s economic outcomes, but it is also uncritical of current definitions surrounding success and ambition.

First, Sandberg’s speech contains overtones of Girl Power. Just believe in yourself – the sky is the limit. Embrace your awesomeness. The problem with the message of Girl Power is that women’s outcomes are linked to their individual ambition and choices.  Social norms, practices and institutions that shape the economic opportunities available to men and women are overlooked. By focusing on the self, gender discrimination becomes a personal obstacle to overcome rather than a societal issue rooted in structural inequalities that must be removed. It’s far easier when it’s an individual issue, right? It means that we no longer need feminism.  We no longer need to belong to a movement that works to identify and address gender-based constraints in the workplace. We no longer need to care about how workplace policies and practices affect men and women differently. Girl Power suggests that all I need to do is show the world that I am a strong, strong woman.

Second, Sandberg’s admonitions are uncritical of current definitions of success and ambition. She seems to define both words using masculine norms – reaching the top. Could it be that we, as a society, need to rethink how we define success? In David Brooks’ recent  op-ed “ It’s Not About You” he argues that the expressions of individualism found in so many commencement speeches – find your passion, chart your own path – do a disservice to graduates. Adulthood isn’t about finding yourself or finding your passion. Instead, “A successful adult makes sacred commitments to a spouse, a community and calling.” The current workplace, however, continues to idealize a worker who is solely devoted to the job.

As a good friend posited, “Could it be that women have it right? They often make intentional choices to live a life that includes work, family and community responsibilities.” As a society, shouldn’t we be more concerned about men’s unchecked ambition? Should men really get a pass on family and community responsibilities because they were pursuing their dreams?  Our country has the most family-hostile public policy in the developed world. These policies are not just women’s issues. They are workforce issues. Masculine norms that lead to discriminating and inflexible work environments are disadvantageous to men as well as women. Addressing differential workplace outcomes for men and women requires a larger social push to examine and redefine the notion of success in the workplace.

The percentage of leadership positions held by women is a key index used to measure gender equality. If we are really concerned about closing the gender achievement gap, we will have to do more than address the ambition gap.

We want to know your thoughts on ambition, success and the workplace. If you are Generation Y woman (born 1978-1994), please consider participating in our national survey on workplace issues. Each participant who completes the survey will be entered to win a $75 gift card.

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2 Responses to “Ambition: The Key to Closing the Gender Gap (Really?)”

  1. Danielle said

    Well said! And so true. Be all you can be only works if there are no obstacles in your way.

  2. […] my professional pursuits but also how I perceive success in the workplace.  A few weeks ago, I wrote about the need for new definitions of career success because societal definitions of success impact […]

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