The Atlantic: We Need to Tell Girls They Can Have It All (Even If They Can’t)

June 29, 2012

The most important problem isn’t that some women at the top struggle to have both an elite career and a fulfilling family life — but rather that many women are scared to be ambitious

In my first year at Harvard business school we studied that rarest of breeds: a female protagonist of a case study. In this case it was Anne Mulcahy, a 20-year company veteran who was “leading Xerox through the perfect storm.” As the discussion unfolded, something strange happened: Our class of 80 students began asking whether Mulcahy had what it took to be CEO, since the case mentioned that she had stopped to cry on the side of the road during a particularly stressful time in the business and that she had children. Within 15 minutes, a course about business leadership became a discussion about work-life balance.

I now want to raise an uncomfortable question: Is all of this talk about our personal lives undermining women? And do we spend as much time encouraging girls to excel as we do helping them balance work and family?

The response to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s wonderfully powerful cover story speaks directly to the long pent-up need to have this very public conversation about ambition and parenting. But as Barnard President Debora Spar writes, we also shouldn’t dismiss the message of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2011 commencement speech. There’s a reason Sandberg urged the future career women in her audience not to “leave before you leave.” The truth is that we’re still not urging girls and women to aim for the top and then stay there. And women are both part of that problemand the solution.

In 2000, when I was 27, I received a posh fellowship to travel to Germany to learn German and work at the Wall Street Journal while doing research for a book project on angel investing. It was an incredible opportunity for a 20-something by any objective standard, and I knew it would help prepare me for graduate school and beyond. My girlfriends, however, expressed shock and horror that I would leave my boyfriend at the time to live abroad for a year. My relatives asked whether I was worried that I’d never get married. And when I attended a barbecue with my then-beau, his boss took me aside to remind me that “there aren’t many guys like that out there.”

I was then in the throes of working 90-hour weeks covering the 2000 presidential campaign while settling the estate of my grandmother, my rock and my biggest backer, who had died the year before. But I’d never felt as lonely as I did at that moment in that backyard. I wondered why I should feel guilty simply for daring to say yes to a momentous professional opportunity.
As my aunt likes to say, women still operate from a position of scarcity rather than a position of abundance. But we should not have to live with the paralyzing fear that this one will “get away.” Men don’t. Instead, they see windows of opportunity and encourage ambitious young men to walk through them. All too often, we encourage young women to look down the road well before they are there, and to look down, instead of up, along the way. But lowered eyes and folded arms do not lead to excellence.

The reality is that many young women (and, for that matter, older women) still see ambition as a dirty word. It’s a word they whisper conspiratorially to the like-minded, not proudly shout out loud. And this is a problem for all of us, because we need their drive and aspirations in a world where women account for less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 20 percent of Congress, and 15 percent of major firms’ board members and still make up a scare minority at most gatherings where real power is centered. At the leading venture capital firms doling out dollars to the next generation of inspired start-ups, women account for precious few of the investors. And they’re embarrassingly absent from nearly every “top-whatever” list that is published.

Numerically speaking, half the population cannot be a minority. Yet when it comes to women, the numbers plainly show that the mathematically impossible is the socially acceptable. And the urgency to change that must not wane, because without it women have no power to change their world.

It matters whether women sit at the table. No one speaks up for you when you are standing outside with your nose pressed up against the glass. You cannot window-shop for power. But we still listen with a touch of suspicion when women share their desires to achieve the extraordinary. When a young women starts talking about her career aspirations, the next question on the script seems to be whether she’s thought about starting a family.

And while both Slaughter and Sandberg explicitly aimed their remarks at professional women, there is also, of course, a very real class component to this conversation that cannot be ignored. As the daughter of one of the “Walmart moms” mentioned in Slaughter’s piece, I grew up around women who hustled to work one and often two unfulfilling jobs for lousy pay so they could give their children every opportunity. As the daughters of those women, we were surrounded by constant hustle, and we learned early on why education, financial security and hard work mattered. When we talked about our futures, my friends and I, we did not talk about stepping back, only pushing ahead, because we saw firsthand the crushing personal heartbreak created by “dreams deferred.”

It wasn’t until I spent a lot of time around the middle and upper classes that I met women who seemed afraid to aim too high. I couldn’t help wondering whether ambition seemed audacious to them because no one hunts for a ticket out of comfort. And now, having worked through two pregnancies, I still find it odd when strangers ask me in professional settings how I am planning to balance “it all.” It’s such a profoundly personal question that it doesn’t seem to deserve a response. But the answer is that the women I knew as a kid did much more with far less and simply got on with it, and I use their example as my guide.

The last generation’s slogan of “having it all” was little more than a marketing trick, much like the great flavor of New Coke. Women didn’t have it all then (just ask all the GenX kids who watched them try), and they’re not much closer now. But in all the talk about work-life balance, I fear we are ignoring another crucial issue: the guilt that keeps women from aiming for the top and negotiating their lives from there. It is high time that unapologetic ambition for those who feel it became the rule, rather than the exception. Because ambition cannot be taught, but it can be crushed. As a 20-something friend wrote me the other evening:

If the Slaughter discussion has taught us anything, it’s that we’re still searching for that framework or formula, that argument on which to judge ourselves and others. Why can’t we just be successful and fulfilled? Because we aren’t working together to support women in their ambitions. We’re writing articles about why they shouldn’t try.