Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The ambition gap – “Don’t you miss your family?”

The COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, recently made headlines when talking about her views regarding the low number of women in C-level positions. It came down to the on-going discussions – do women not break through because men (and other women) don't let them or because they don't want to. She used the term "ambition gap" to describe how women appear to have less of a drive to succeed than men. She attributed this to the up-bringing and socialization of girls that differed from that of boys by engraining in them that being ambitious and wanting to be better than others would lead to them being less liked, while this was exactly the other way around for boys.

Sheryl Sandberg came under a lot of fire after expressing those views. It was claimed that the blame was put on the women and that the (mostly male) managers were left off the hook: "See? Women don't want to succeed, therefore we don't promote them."

There are statistics on one side (and Sheryl Sandberg quoted some of them to make her point) and personal experience on the other side (there will be plenty women out there who got passed for a promotion for gender reasons disagreeing with her). The truth – as always – is most likely to be somewhere in the middle.

My personal experience based on statistically entirely unsound observations is that I witness the ambition-gap more often than the discrimination. I see highly educated and talented women who want it all: the successful husband, the big family, time to spend with the family, time to spend with friends AND a great career. To me, this is simply not realistic. When looking at men and women who have the fabulous job and a successful career they typically have to compromise in the private sphere. Many of my female friends are not willing to do so and then compromise on the professional side. This is what I call an ambition-gap. It is also a choice on how to live and what is important in life, and we should rejoice living in a world where such choices are possible. However, choices are of course influenced by up-bringing and socialization – and this is where Sheryl Sandberg clearly sees room for improvement. I tend to agree with her.

Just as an example, I have never heard someone ask a full-time working dad “don’t you miss your family?”  This – possibly well-meant, but clearly suggestive and somewhat offensive – question is put to full-time working moms quite regularly. Mostly by other women, I might add.

So, next time around, ask your male friends who are full-time working fathers how they feel about being away from their family so much. And with your female friend who flies around the world for her work, away from her children – don’t play the guilt card, but rather ask her about her exciting job and make her feel good about having a successful career.

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