March 31, 2017 Practice Points

Ambition and the Definition of the Successful Woman

By Chantel Kramme

On the heels of the recent election, The Atlantic published a seven-part series titled “The Ambition Interviews.” Through this series of essays, authors Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace add to the ongoing discussion about workplace equality by exploring what happens to women’s ambition in the years after they receive their college degree.

Schank and Wallace began their project by interviewing 37 members of their Northwestern University sorority’s 1993 graduating class—a group the authors described as women who “by all measures were in a position to rise to the highest echelons of any industry.” They asked these women about their career paths since college, including the successes and challenges they had faced. By understanding why some of these women achieved the career success they once desired and why others didn’t, the authors sought to identify the factors that stand in the way of greater gender equality in the workplace. Schank and Wallace go on to compare the findings of these interviews to the conclusions of both recent research studies and the opinions of thought leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

In their essays, Schank and Wallace make a number of useful observations:

  • Couples behave as though there is a set limit on the amount of ambition that can be contained within one union. A 2016 study by Robert Mare at the University of California, Los Angeles, found spouses today are more likely to have similar levels of education than they used to. While this turned out to be true in their dataset, Schank and Wallace found this didn’t translate into a significant number of “power couples” like one might expect. Instead, Schank and Wallace found “couples often behave as though there is a set limit on the amount of ambition that can be contained within one union.” Even though most couples had comparable education, once the couple had children, only one person in the couple went on to hold what is traditionally defined as a successful career. Who held the successful career sometimes shifted over time, but only 10% of the women interviewed met the classic power couple description.
  • Lack of paid parental leave doesn’t drive ambitious women out; the years after having a child does. Given the public policy debate about paid parental leave, Schank and Wallace expected many of the women they interviewed to cite lack of paid leave as a factor in her decision to scale back at work or leave the workforce altogether. Surprisingly, the women interviewed did not cite parental leave as contributing factor. Instead, the women identified the burdens they faced in the time after their child’s newborn days—childcare obligations and lack of flexible work options—as what caused them to reconsider their career trajectory. While some women identified the bond they experienced with their new child as what led them to reassess their career, many women found that they could not justify going back to work once they factored in their salary, the cost of childcare, their long term career prospects, and the negative effects working would have on their family.
  • Sexism continues to diminish women’s professional progress, but women are more empowered to stand up against sexism than ever before. Schank and Wallace were interested to find that only 34% of the women they interviewed mentioned sexism or sexual harassment in their interviews, and none of those women believed sexism directly blocked their advancement. Upon digging deeper, the authors questioned whether this number would have been much higher if those interviewed had acknowledged the more subtle forms of sexism for what they are. The interviews did offer a sign of hope though. Those interviewed indicated almost unanimously that they directly addressed incidents of sexism—a sign that when recognized, women are more likely than earlier generations to take a stand against sexism.

The authors’ most surprising finding: virtually all of the women they interviewed were on similar trajectories—up until the moment the women had children. Whereas Sandberg has argued girls’ ambition is stymied from childhood, Schank and Wallace’s research questions not only the timing of the “ambition gap,” but whether such a gap exists at all. They found that even those women who scaled back their careers did not lack or lose ambition, but rather, their definition of ambition simply changed. These women were the “president of everything,” from neighborhood associations to charitable groups, causing the authors to conclude ambition “takes many forms, only one of which is becoming CEO.”

While not all of those Schank and Wallace interviewed were lawyers (although a number were), their essays provide helpful insight for women lawyers and those that seek to support and retain them. As the authors point out, until we understand the problems women face in the workplace, we can’t fix them.

Chantel Kramme is an associate for Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, in Des Moines, Iowa.


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