During my first job, an internship at a bank down the street from my high school, I worked hard because I wanted to become the CEO of the company. At sixteen, I had not yet experienced the active bias, stereotypes, cancelled opportunities and muted ambitions which patiently awaited me in the dozen years to come. Au contraire, the world was my oyster and I would be one of its pearly Chief Executives. This is the normal, universal reason to work hard at a “career:” to construct a narrative in which you are constantly moving closer to achieving personal dreams and ambitions.
Yet something happened to me when I entered the working world, and I could see something happening to other women in my peer group. This sneaky something was the realization that our place at work was inevitably politicized. We may have been raised as part of a generation which was blissfully unaware of any reason why our lives should be more difficult than our male friends and classmates. But entering the corporate workplace meant stepping into quick sand which mixed generations, some of which were significantly less progressive, and allowing ourselves to be governed via a strict hierarchy where leaders were almost exclusively male. Meanwhile, many of these corporate firms were clumsily attempting to “modernize,” which included pumping out hollow rhetoric about the importance of gender diversity. Whether I subscribed to it or not, I was no longer working simply for my own individual ambitions: I was now engaging in a second type of work, the work of proving that I could work. The work of feminism.
The Atlantic recently published a set of articles called “The Ambition Interviews,” written by two friends from Northwestern University who set out to see how the lives of nearly 40 ambitious women from their graduating class unfolded in the decades following. While the study is not intended to be a representative sample of all working women, it does shed some insight into why women poised to “have it all” don’t end up rising to equivalent heights in their careers as their male peers. Similarly, to best answer the question of why so many women, exhausted, get off the corporate ladder in the middle of climbing it, requires an understanding of the effect which working two jobs has on a woman who is competing with male peers that might only have one.
“The Ambition Interviews” segments the women into three groups, with straightforward titles: the Opt Outers, the Scale Backers, and the High Achievers. The way these groups approach their primary work, as well as their second job of feminism, can help explain some of the contradictions and tensions in modern-day feminism. I have been thinking a lot about the women I have known – from close friends to more distant colleagues – and how they might fit into this loose framework. While again not intended to be representative of a broader population, hopefully some insights can be gleaned from how women can continue both types of work.
Plenty of the women I have known would fit in the category of Opt Outers. Despite the ill-chosen label, there is nothing un-ambitious about them (equally a reflection of my own bias in friendship, as a compliment to them): They were, like the women in the study, captains of sports teams and heads of organizations at their universities. In other words, perfectly capable of climbing whichever corporate ladder they fancied. Yet various triggers caused them to jump off – from being belittled, losing interest in walking the aggressiveness tightrope, being judged on past performance rather than future potential, having to prove their value over and over again, and being paid less and promoted more slowly than male peers (all things which have been found, time and time again, to occur regularly in corporate organizations).
In contrast to locker room talk that perhaps these women are just “not cut out for the job,” they are just as smart and capable as the friends who have chosen to stay in corporate. The difference is that my Opt Outer friends are more likely to have been outraged by existing sexism and unwilling to accept such bias as simply a standard “modern-day corporate challenge” which they ought to be quiet about. This lack of compromise tends to lead to some time out: many have needed time away from work – both individual ambitions and the work of feminism – to regain their bearings and reassess next steps.
While the Atlantic study focuses on child rearing as the main activity these women tend to refocus their ambitions into, my friends who have opted out of corporate have gone on to simply readjust their career trajectory. A stubbornness about the status quo which results in someone not engaging with reality can breed amazing creativity and disruption which is bound to change the reality of tomorrow. Friends who eventually dived back into individual work – turning into lawyers, writers, chefs – will inevitably accomplish a lot for the work of feminism as they slowly but surely change the status quo rather than engage with it.
Another portion of women in my peer group have “refocused” and would probably be grouped into the Scale Backer category. These women are equally smart and capable, so have remained in their firms or industries while simply muting their ambitions. One said to me, “I just want a steady income so that I can enjoy life outside the office,” a perfectly reasonable statement if I hadn’t known her during the years she wanted to become a star investor. But she’s long forgotten about those ideals, having accepted many of the inequalities of the modern workplace. In my eyes, this group of women exude a wise calm which is yet beyond my grasp, and an accepting air about the difficulty of changing inequity during one lifetime. They have a healthy focus on that life outside the office, while keeping a foot in the office and contributing to incremental change.
The Scale Backers I know are content being in the middle of a corporation so long as they continue to receive their corporate salary. Some have gone to smaller or less prestigious firms where leadership opportunities might be more likely, and there are occasional mentions of colleagues not being quite up to snuff. Again, many of my peers don’t yet have children, but this is the group I anticipate will be most flexible to manage both a career and kids – something which The Atlantic study found, while it exhausted women more than choosing one or the other alone, was in the end the most deeply rewarding.
When it comes to the work of feminism, my friends who fall in the Scale Backer group are most likely to be matter-of-fact in how they describe workplace inequality and gendered bias. It’s as if they were, in some former life, diehard Steinem fans who have now grown up and realized they need to move on with their lives because the status quo ain’t gonna change before their lives are over. While I sometimes get frustrated with this group’s preference for very small, incremental change, I certainly appreciate having these realists around to keep the dreamers in check.
Thirdly, my female peers who are High Achievers, the handful of women who seem unwavering in their corporate pursuit, are the stars of their organizations and fully aware of their ability to compete successfully with male peers. I imagine these women have a copy of Lean In on their nightstand, and a poet for a husband. The Atlantic study confirmed that “power couples” are a rarity, and that most couples tend to have a maximum level of ambition which can be contained in the relationship – meaning that the husband is more likely to do the opting out if the woman is a high achiever, particularly if the two have kids.
These women generally don’t like to speak to me about gender. They may be happy to join the women’s network at a firm if it means progressing their own career, but are uncomfortable when I speak to them about active feminism. Given how difficult it is to do one job, these go-getters may do well to continue ignoring the topic of gender inequality and focus instead on their individual careers. They will do well to shut down discussions about unequal parental leave policies (as one business leader did to me, in front of a group of men) and defend masculine job descriptions when an algorithm reveals the overwhelming use of masculine words, something which has been proven to discourage women from applying (as one human resources professional did to me). Some of these women don’t give a damn about the work of feminism because they are too busy making sure they get their primary work done for an organization. My money is on these go-getters to make it all the way up to the CEO.
What I’ve learned from these varied groups of ambitious women is that it’s nearly impossible to do two jobs at once. A woman will eventually need to decide whether she invests in fighting for a cause or fighting for herself in an organization. The two fights are different – but equally important – types of work. While I may have sounded critical of the High Achievers, I am not. I sympathize enormously with the go-getters who avoided feminist me in the corporate hallways. It’s hard enough to fight for yourself, to read enough about your field and present yourself professionally to be truly competitive with the men who want the same job that you do. Those men aren’t worrying about whether they are being excluded from career-determining dinners or are being sexualized by peers behind their backs, so why should the women waste their precious cognitive load with such thoughts? The best chance of succeeding as an individual may be to completely ignore a lot of things which could potentially be holding you back, and just focus on being as good as possible at your job and the job you want next. To make it really clear, we absolutely need women to focus on their individual careers if that’s where their ambitions point. Though knowing go-getters (because I was, for so long, one of them), any High Achievers reading this will already be thinking, “of course, why would you be stupid enough to focus on anything else?”
Well, the answer to that question—I realized as I started to take more interest in the second work of feminism—is because women in leadership positions are still female leaders and women in politics are still female politicians. Because it’s still not the norm to have women in those positions. Figuring out why it’s still not the norm is where feminism comes in. The feminist movement is a bigger fight than that of our individual careers. The feminist movement addresses, amongst other things, why we still have so few women in leadership positions, why women are still paid less than men, and why they are systematically overlooked in both recruitment and empowerment once in the organization. So, the second job of feminism—whether done by Opt Outers who redirect their ambitions, or Scale Backers who seek a healthier balance between life and work—is also crucial.
Thus, High Achievers ought to honor the feminist movement. As much as I would like to think it was entirely my former go getter self which got me as far as I did in my corporate career, I know that I owe a lot of that to the feminists who preceded me. Feminists whom I must thank for my increasingly benchmarked wages, for my more meritocratic promotion, for my managers being forced into “unconscious bias” training sessions. I owe a lot of feminists – who were not able, whether legally or spiritually, to pursue their own internal go-getters to their fullest potential – a whole lot of thank you for empowering me to pursue my go-getter self years later instead. And I believe firmly that any woman under the illusion that her career success is and has always been completely in her hands has slept through history class. Women have always had to carefully allocate their time between the two jobs they have had to do in parallel: their main job and the job of feminism. Feminism is the only work which can tackle the broader, systemic themes of inequality which cannot be solved by individuals alone. Movements can span multiple countries and multiple industries in a way one person cannot. Feminism must tackle the pay gap, the lack of women in decision making roles, fair access to healthcare, and a host of other agenda items. Male go-getters who are willing to give up some of their own individual ambitions can equally redirect some of their energy towards the movement and help push the agenda forward.
The other realization I had was that not all of us should feel that we must do all of it at once. Some of us need to choose the work of feminism as our primary work. But equally, we need go-getters at the ready so that when feminists have helped remove ceilings, the go-getters are there qualified, waiting, and ready to pop up. We need female CEOs to inspire young businesswomen to believe it’s possible to run a company. We need female presidents to inspire young politicians that it’s possible to hold the highest office in their land. We need top female athletes and movie stars and scientists. The need for role models – so that women can be what they can see – cannot be understated. The senior lawyer who says she’s “actively applying for top legal jobs” is just as important as the woman teaching gender differences in the law to young students. Both are crucial and we would do a disservice by expecting the senior lawyer to spend more time on feminist causes which would handicap her time and chances of being seen as capable of taking on those top jobs. And yet, the woman who teaches students about how different genders have been treated differently in the law is increasing awareness of inequality, which in effect makes it easier for the senior lawyer to openly discuss certain issues and make real impact in her position of power. We need both women to do what they do.
That’s why, while those three categories may have been a useful way for me to understand different perspectives on our work, I would rather focus on one group: women. It has been disheartening to see women divide themselves up as if each sub-sector of women is superior or more victimized than another. We’ve seen it successfully done with race and with class. We’ve seen it done with feminists who criticize women that go into jobs like fashion or finance, and we’ve seen feminists argue about whether one is truly a feminist if she wears makeup. Ironically, this plays right into the hands of another stereotype about women which is the “cat fight” stereotype: the way Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly were portrayed when they had divergent views. That separation doesn’t help when there is so much work to be done to progress the agenda of feminism, which we can only accomplish in unison.
Politicians across developed countries are threatening, right now, to regress on women’s rights. Women lost disproportionately because of Brexit, because it was the EU’s pillar of gender equality which was once – and will potentially no longer – guide the UK legal system. Women lost disproportionately because of the US election, because legal rights and healthcare access are being disproportionately pulled back for women than men under the new administration. This is all happening today, in 2017, while we’re busy segmenting ourselves into individual pieces and criticizing one another’s choice of work.
It’s time we stop contributing to our own demise and start respecting one another for the choices we make and the work we women do – whether it’s for our individual selves, for our families, or for a movement. Because it’s exhausting to do all the work alone, but we stand a chance of being able to do it all together.