Why I am not more ambitious is a question that has perplexed me long before Sheryl Sandberg brought the issue to the front pages of the National Press. But following her remark that ‘until women are as ambitious as men, they’re not going to achieve as much as men’, the issue of whether women lack ambition is one that across the internet and beyond, women are being invited to chip their proverbial 2 cents into.
As Facebook’s Chief Operations Officer and acknowledged “first lady”, one of a very slight handful of females to have crossed corporate culture’s indisputable gender divide, although Sandberg is well-placed to comment on the subject of female ambition, there is a growing feeling that she has oversimplified the issue, with a number of voices countering that she has somehow betrayed our sex with her remarks.
As talk amongst my friends has turned to targets in the life plan in recent months – reaching a pinnacle of their career by 30, babies by 32, living happily ever after, hereafter – opening up a conversation about what is clearly a multi-faceted and highly emotive issue couldn’t have come at a more convenient time. For an intrepid wanderer like myself, the very notion of a life plan, let alone such clearly earmarked destinations with expectant times of arrival, is hugely anxiety inducing. As the years roll by, recurring questions are accumulating an ever-increasing coat of urgency: Why am I not more ambitious? Why don’t I plan more? Is there something wrong with me?
Women like Sandberg and Anna Fels would caution that there is. Fels is a psychiatrist who first posed the question ‘Do women lack ambition’ back in 2004. Her latest book “Necessary Dreams” sets forth the thesis that not only do women have problems with ambition, they have specific difficulties with the language surrounding it. Guess that’s my cue to head on down to Waterstones, then…
On the other hand, however: The problem – if not outright danger – with this type of thinking is that instead of highlighting that ambition isn’t culturally regarded as particularly female-friendly, by emphasising that women have a problem with it, or, indeed, fail to achieve as much as men because they have a comparative lack, the onus – and potential blame – are placed on women, not on the fact that culture and society classify ambition as either desirable or undesirable depending on what sex you are. Sandberg says that “If you survey men and women in college today in this country, the men are more ambitious than the women”. Is that any wonder when the average starting salaries for male and female graduates are 45k and 26k respectively?
In a more useful contribution to the discussion, Fels states (correctly) that “when men succeed professionally, it’s a straight win-win. But for women, success comes with baggage, in the form of questions like ‘is she a good mother’ or ‘what does her husband think’” Herein lies the crux of the matter: Fels and Sandberg do not deny that the unique challenges facing women stem from the underlying problem with cultural ideals of femininity – women have to face the reality that they must appear feminine and let’s face it, ambition just isn’t sexy when it’s dressed in a pencil skirt. But rather than issuing the challenge to women, Fels and Sandberg – indeed, all of us in fact – should be targeting our energy at the pervasive charge of conformity through which such meanings and gender ideals are maintained. As one female blogger puts it, ‘in environments where men have dominated for so long, which require that men and women perform their gender in a particular way, you can’t just add women and stir. You have to change the recipe of success.’
That change has to start by destabilising the cultural imperative that males must be masculine and females must be feminine. Women’s professional lives are often characterised by ambivalence, a kind which, according to Fels, is less present in men. That ambivalence is the unavoidable consequence of various efforts which permit men to be whilst requiring women to appear. If we approach success from an outward direction, trying to fit a standard model that fails to satisfy our ambition because it asserts that it isn’t feminine enough, any success we experience is likely to be characterised by a phrase you too often hear a woman utter: “It’s lonely at the top”. If we come at it inwardly, however, letting our inherent disposition determine what it means for us, we open out the possibility of creating an alternative, more flexible model, one that allows us to tailor what we do around who we are, not the other way around.
For a wanderer like myself this means continuing down a merry road of experiences and discoveries, forging those connections with the people, places and principles that kindle the fire of my ambition instead of fanning its flames. Such connections are at the heart of the latest international best-seller ‘The Social Animal. An account of ‘how success happens’, it tells the story of Harold and Erica, two characters by no means earmarked for success who manage to achieve an extraordinary amount nonetheless. Their secret? Social and emotional intelligence; the newly-fashionable buzz words in recent research studies of profitable lives.
Social and emotional intelligence is an intelligence for women and its moment in the spotlight couldn’t be more timely. Sandberg refers to the story told by the numbers: “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%”. That story masks a different story, the one of the women who desire something more than the corporate and male-authored conceptions of what being successful is. That story will be crafted and told by a generation of us who, frankly, are tired, angry and frustrated by the failure of the established conception to satisfy and credit our ambition sufficiently. Indeed, the discussion and debate that have followed Sandberg’s comments, not to mention the current popularity of books like The Social Animal are as clear an indication as any that now is the time for the female story of success!