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Marlo Thomas

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Women's History Month: Closing the Ambition Gap

Posted: 03/13/2012 8:07 am

March is Women's History Month, and I'm being asked the same question -- a lot:

"Whatever happened to the women's movement? Where are the feminist freedom fighters today?"

I guess if people don't see women marching, they don't think they're moving. But they need to remember that the marching, the protesting, of the Sixties and Seventies opened the door for a generation that we hoped would come after us. And it has.

It's exciting to see three women on the Supreme Court. It's exciting to see three women Secretaries of State and even women leading other nations. It's exciting to see women anchor the nightly news, and it's exciting to know that the chief operating officer of Facebook -- the one who helps you connect with your hundreds of 'friends' -- is, in fact, a woman.

But what's most exciting is that this woman of power -- and a billionaire to boot -- is not satisfied with how far women have come.

"The world is still run by men," Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg said in a recent speech. "We're not teaching our girls and women to have professional ambition. We're not encouraging women to lean into their careers and aim for powerful jobs. With only 3% of Fortune 500 companies run by women, we have a real problem."

Hearing Sandberg's words, I couldn't help but flash back to when I was 23 years old, producing my own television show, and people would say, "You're so ambitious!" And I would cringe, feeling the sting of their contempt. What they were saying was that I was "aggressive" and "assertive" and needed to be "in control." It would take me years to feel these words as a compliment, not as the pejoratives they were meant to be.

"We don't teach our girls to have power," Sandberg told me a few months ago. "We teach them to 'get along.' And if they get too loud or forceful, we call them 'bossy.'"

That made me laugh. What spirited young girl hasn't heard that word? Even Tina Fey titled her memoir "Bossypants."

Sandberg puts it simply. "I want my daughter to have the choice not to just succeed," she says, "but to be liked for her accomplishments." Nobody said that to me in the Seventies. That's why I created Free to Be...You and Me. I wanted to tell girls and boys what I hadn't been told. I didn't want them to take half their lives to figure out that, whatever they wanted, they should go for it all the way -- and not worry about doing what everyone else does, just so they would be liked.

That's why I love the posters on the wall at the Facebook offices that read, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" I'd like to hang those posters in the hallways of every school in the country, to remind kids -- and their teachers, too -- that the barriers we face are mostly internal, not external.

Women's History Month is not just a time to celebrate where we've come from, or how far we've opened the door. It's also a time for us to express our dissatisfaction that the doors aren't opened wide enough. As always, it's the agitation that creates the pearl.

So where is the women's movement today? It is in the powerful hands of leaders like Sandberg, who, having risen to the top of their careers, feel the responsibility to reach out and inspire those women who follow them -- the college graduates, the women who are struggling at the first rung of their careers, the women who are stalled and frightened.

"Fortunes favors the bold," Sandberg told Barnard's graduating class. "Think big. Dream big. We will never close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap."

With leaders like Sandberg, we will.

So in honor of Women's History Month, we've assembled this special slide show of women who are leading the way -- in different fields -- all headed in the same direction, all part of the same march.

Sheryl Sandberg
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Even before Sheryl Sandberg left Google to become the COO of Facebook in 2008, she was ranked number 29 on Fortune magazine's "Most Powerful Women in Business," and she was the youngest woman on that list. Since then, she has emerged as one of the most influential executives on earth, and has been named one of Forbes magazine's "100 Most Powerful Women" and one of the "25 Most Influential People on the Web" by Business Week.

 

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