As a writer, filmmaker, and budding entrepreneur, I find myself questioning the future at any given moment throughout the day. Questions like “Will I have enough money to support my family in a few years?” or “How am I going to sustain this non-9-5 lifestyle when I have kids?” consume my head causing angst, unnecessary worry, and preconceived expectations that certain events in the future will occur. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Partners are not guaranteed. Kids are not guaranteed. And frankly, life often produces the unexpected versus the expected. So the question remains: why do women often plan their careers on factors that have yet to occur?
In a commencement speech to Barnard College, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg reflected upon the self-sabotaging behavior that women often exhibit while climbing the career ladder. She reflects:
“Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually. These women don’t even have relationships, and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back. The problem is, often they don’t even realize it.”
In the early eighties, women became 50% of the college graduates in the United States. It’s been thirty years, and women still have yet to reach 50% of the jobs at the top of the totem pole. Some chalk this up to patriarchy and discrimination, as century-old power structures never move willingly. But of course, these prejudicial forces are not a simple reflection of top-down restraint. These power structures are hegemonic, as women often succumb to limiting their ambition or giving up on powerhouse careers, instead of demanding more.
It is true that every individual makes a choice on whether or not they’ll pursue the best career accessible. Of course, not everyone receives equal opportunity or education to pursue certain careers. But regardless of social conditions, everyone makes a choice on whether to keep pushing or absolve to contentment. Do you go for the top position at your company? Or do you remain satisfied with a lower title? Do you go back to school to become better qualified for your career field? Or do you label school as impossible due to time commitment and student loans? Do you argue for that raise? Or sit quietly while your male counterparts get paid? Even better, do you reluctantly leave the workforce for an extended period of time to take care of your children? Or do you create an agreement between you and your partner that you’ll share childrearing and domestic responsibilities, so you both can have fulfilling professional lives?
Here’s the truth: men make far fewer compromises. Most expect their partners to take a heavier load of housework and parenting. They think bigger when it comes to their careers, which is partly due to social conditioning. And they are far more confident in their professional skills than women. In college-educated populations, there are studies that show an ambition gap between men and women. If you ask men and women questions about GPAs or sales goals, men get it wrong slightly high and women get it wrong slightly low. Not to mention, men attribute their success to personal capabilities while women cite teamwork, help from others, and working harder. While no one likes a boastful executive, these studies do raise a question to women’s confidence up against their male peers.
Perhaps, we need to reinforce the mantra “think bigger” with our sisters, female friends, and daughters. It’s not enough to demand equality in our professional lives. These expectations must transcend into our personal relationships.
On the flipside, we ought to raise our boys and teach our brothers that manhood means sharing equal responsibility in the home and workplace.
In the words of Sandberg, “If you pick someone who’s willing to share the burdens and the joys of your personal life, you’re going to go further. A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world.”
Power structures only change with pressure. And first, we must close the ambition gap if we ever expect to see a shrink in the gender achievement gap.
Is it time that we think bigger? Stop settling? And step up our ambition? Speak on it.