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Ambition Gap and the Two Words Behind It

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We've been hearing a lot about the ambition gap lately: the fact that, as Sheryl Sandberg notes, only a paltry 15 to 18 percent of women occupy the top spots. But there's a dirty little secret that impacts the number of women who ultimately become leaders, or who hope to ascend to leadership positions, and it's this: many women believe -- or, sadly, find out the hard way -- that ultimately, they will have to choose between family and career.

I see this all the time in my current and former students. I have been told, a number of times, by talented young women, that they see me as something as a role model: I stayed home with my kids when they were young while I pursued a career as a freelance journalist and, when said kids fled the nest, began teaching at a university. What I want to tell them is that they're nuts. It wasn't easy and it didn't work nearly as well as it looks. And in fact, full disclosure here, I am one of those ambition gap stats.

The sad truth is that whether your dreams are to be a swashbuckling journalist or a high-rent CEO, your dreams -- at least in the way the workplace is currently structured -- are flat out incompatible with parenthood. And when that sharp reality slaps these talented women in the face, a lot of this incredible double-X talent backs off. Sometimes before they even have kids. Or even a marriage. They think that ultimately, they will have to choose. And how many are brave enough to face that choice?

Don't judge them, don't blame them. Because the question we haven't addressed is this: Why should women have to view their dreams as an either/or proposition? Men don't. Seems to me, if we want to narrow the ambition gap, what we need to do is talk about changing a culture that assigns women the bulk of the second shift as well as the need to reconfigure the workplace structure to one that is compatible with, well, life outside of work -- whether or not you have kids. Or as Gloria Steinem once so brilliantly said: "Don't think about making women fit the world -- think about making the world fit women."

And speaking of Steinem, she participated in a panel at the recent Women in the World conference in New York with Sandberg. And according to Business Insider, when Sandberg mentioned the lopsided numbers of women at the top of the game and asked: "Is this a stalled revolution?" Steinem replied:

We're at a critical mass stage so we're getting more resistance ... [And the U.S.] is the worst in the world at making it possible for parents to have a life outside the home.

Bravo. (There's also the fact that when men and women are deciding whose career gets precedence, it's often a matter of money. Men make more. But I digress.) And so, what I wonder is why the disconnect between work and life isn't the main issue when we talk about the ambition gap. All of which reminds me of a conversation we had with psychologist Barry Schwartz, the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why Less Is More" and pretty much the guru of the psychology of choice, when we were writing our book. One of the things he told us was this:
It's worse in many ways for women than it is for men because of the great lie of the feminist revolution, which is not simply that women can do anything, but that women can do everything. There's a sense that men can think that too, but society hasn't changed enough for men to have the same kind of investment in their nurturing role as parents that women do. To have a high-powered career as a woman, every day is torture."
Schwartz told us that back when he and his wife were raising their kids, he took pains to tell his students that his family life was an anomaly:
I said, 'Listen, I have a job two blocks from my house, and I only have to be in the office six hours a week--the rest of the week, no matter how hard I work, I get to choose where and I get to choose when. You can't do this if one of you is a lawyer, the other is a doctor. So don't kid yourself. We got lucky. The world is not set up for this. You will discover it.'
And discover it, we do. And that should be the conversation. Speaking of which, we just got back from speaking at the Women's Leadership Conference at the Cunningham Center in Columbus, Georgia. We rode back to the airport with one of the other speakers, the transcendent Karen Walron , who had just written a post on this very issue. Check it out, especially the comments.
And then, join our conversation. Either/or? Or constructive change. You be the judge.