Do Women Professionals Lack Ambition? REALLY?

By now you know that I respect Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive, who has become a leading spokesperson for women in business, and that I think she is an excellent role model for women in both business and law.  I have blogged about her in the past, and I love some of her coined phrases like “Lean in” and “Don’t leave before you leave.”  I include some of those messages in my speeches and point young women lawyers and law students in Ms. Sandberg’s direction for her personal brand of wisdom.

Recently, however, Ms. Sandberg spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and coined a new phrase that I am not so sure about.  She said that, “in the developed world we have an ambition gap at the personal level” and “we will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap”.  In other words, women are not as ambitious as men, and it is holding them back.

This has caused a bit of a stir, and I am throwing my spoon into the pot.  I think that this is overly simplistic and ignores all of the extra responsibilities that women face at home and in raising children that men just do not have to worry about.  Or, if the men personally think that they should worry about it, no one else seems to care when it comes to handing out promotions.  The men certainly are not being held back because they do not jump in with their spouses to handle their own 50 per cent of the parenting and homemaking duties.

Rather than an ambition gap, I think that women professionals today have a time gap.  I write about this in my new book where I try to give harried young women lawyers resources and role models to help them make the most out of the time they have.  While it is true that the young women lawyers can hold their own with their male colleagues and very often outperform them, that all ends when the level playing field is tilted in favor of men with the addition of children to the work-life equation.  That is when time and its finite quality wreaks havoc with the achievement picture.

It is not ambition, but time, that is the problem.  Blaming it on a lack of ambition makes it sound a whole lot more solvable.  Maybe that is the intention because it is pretty grim the other way around.  Women can continue to be ambitious and do excellent work.  Many times, however, they cannot continue to do excellent work all the time—the same number of hours a day that men are able to do it.

Sheryl Sandberg is a prophet of sorts, but I think she got it wrong this time.  She is laying the blame at the feet of young women when, in fact, that blame should be laid just as squarely at the feet of law firm and business leadership.  Until the people at the top of firms and companies—men and women alike— understand and respect the disparity in terms of opportunities for men and for women, women will not make the progress that they so richly deserve and which is critical for the healthy survival of business institutions.

Clearly, men cannot make all of the decisions correctly—who is the woman who does not recognize that?— and we had better figure out a way to keep a good number of women of the mother/caretaker variety at the table to develop into the leaders that we need.

So, I think Sheryl Sandberg succumbed to a sound bite.  Even prophets get tired and discouraged. Some times they think they are not being heard, and they overpunctuate to get attention.  This time it was not a good idea.  Pointing the finger at women and telling them that they are not ambitious enough is counterproductive.  You can tell them that they need to be more assertive, you can tell them that they need to take new client development more seriously, and you can tell them that they need to take on the establishment a little more.  But, please do not tell them that they are not ambitious enough as a group.  Instead, look at the facts.

They are plenty ambitious in the wee hours of the night when they are drafting legal memos, fixing the kids brown bag lunches for the next day and filling out the school applications.  They are ambitious in a different way than men are, and that is not a bad thing.  They plan and they prep and they keep all of the balls in the air.  Those who just happen to have the perfect nanny, the perfect husband who does his share, or the perfect law firm eventually find their way to the top, and their ambition is recognized.  Let’s not mix up the concepts of hard work and ambition.

What will make women who reach the top great leaders, however, is not just that they are ambitious.  It is that they have compassion for others who choose a different path—those who take a different fork in the road— not out of lack of ambition but many times out of necessity.  It is that compassion in our women leaders that will pull us forward in the end.

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3 Responses to Do Women Professionals Lack Ambition? REALLY?

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  3. Z says:

    Did you not read her book (“Lean in”) before posting this?…

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