Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has revived the conversation last kicked up by Anne Marie Slaughter’s article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The book JUST came out and I have not yet finished it. But from the press coverage, it is clear that Sandberg goes beyond the conversation about “work/life balance.” I’ve seen several interviews where she talks about women and ambition. She observes that women’s self-doubt holds them back and that women need to power through those doubts. She notes that men “raise their hands” more readily than women – apparently less deterred by self-doubt. I agree. But I fear that Sandberg’s solution is one-sided.
First, we need to avoid stereotyping. Women do not all think, work or lead alike, any more than all men are the same. The question is: Do women in general have less ambition than men in general? I use prototypes for masculine and feminine, Max (representing the masculine view in both men and women) and Fran (representing the feminine perspective, whether in a man or woman). Does Fran have less ambition or interest in power than Max? Or does Fran define and demonstrate ambition differently than Max, whose perspective predominates in the workplace?
There is a difference, and this difference causes some women to be seen as less ambitious and less comfortable with power. That is what Sandberg is observing.
The average man values status more than relationships, takes center stage, and is perfectly fine tooting his own horn. He sounds confident even when he is not sure about the answer. For the average woman, it is harder to toot her own horn, claim credit and display confidence when she isn’t at least 92% sure.
Ambition from Max’s perspective is about competition and winning. It is about getting to the top, to the “alpha” position in a hierarchy. Fran’s version of ambition has more to do with collaboration than competition; she cares more about purpose than status. Ambition, as defined in Max’s world, is obscured by Fran’s tendency not to ask directly for what she wants and to speak with disclaimers and questions, wait to apply for a position until she feels fully qualified and avoid taking credit for her own successes.
Are women less ambitious, less interested in power? No. Some express ambition in the masculine form. (These women have to watch out for the double bind; ambitious women are not always beloved.) Others just define and demonstrate ambition differently.
We can, as Sandberg does, urge women to appear more ambitious in the masculine way. But this can result in inauthenticity, homogeneity – and exhaustion. I would like to see equal focus on urging leaders to understand and appreciate these and other differences. The workplace was built by and for men. It naturally reflects a higher value for the masculine. Women will be more successful when leaders (men and women) appreciate both masculine and feminine ways of thinking, acting and leading. Leaders will create more inclusive workplaces when they broaden their definitions of ambition and power and honor the feminine as well as masculine forms of both.
Do you think women lack ambition or just show it differently?