Millennial women and ambition

3951147365_02b6cb2aac_zI spoke at a Forte Foundation conference this past weekend to a group of female MBA students. This organization seeks to support women in business, and the young women in my audience certainly meant business. They had already figured out how to combine many aspects of life, employing strategies to succeed at work and school while also hitting the gym early in the morning, going to dance classes, cooking, indulging in a 5-hour brunch (yep, that was on a time log -- ah, youth!), a Yankees game, and so forth.

So it was interesting for me to contrast this group of very ambitious women with the results of a recent survey of college-educated millennials done by the Zeno Group. This survey found that only 15% of young women aspired to lead a large or prominent organization.* Roughly half (49 percent) said the sacrifices women leaders have to make aren’t worth it, and nine in ten say that women leaders have to make more sacrifices than their male counterparts. Some 76 percent of young women are concerned about their ability to achieve a balance between personal and professional goals.

Looking at those numbers, I had several thoughts. First, I wish that I could personally share the time logs I’ve been collecting from women who earn over $100,000 a year -- and have kids at home -- with all 1000 women in Zeno’s survey response group. Perhaps there are sacrifices involved in professional success, but if so, they don’t preclude massages, quilting, yoga classes, watching truly awful TV, or even staring at the ceiling fan with a mesmerized baby for an hour, as one woman did. Speaking of which, these logs feature a lot of kid time, especially for women with young children. If you think that having a Big Career involves completely outsourcing childrearing, you should tell that to the woman who’s up at 5:30 a.m. nursing her toddler.

Second, why would the sacrifices women make be greater than those men make? Perhaps this hints at the idea that success is attractive in the marriage market for men but unattractive in women -- which isn't exactly true. Women in the top 15% of earners are more likely to be married than lower-earning women. So maybe it's getting at the idea that a Big Career involves giving up dandelions and hugs and other little moments. While I don’t buy that a Big Career precludes seeing your family -- if you make that a priority -- if it did, presumably it would for men and women. The assumption inherent in this idea that women make greater sacrifices is that men don’t care about not seeing their families. I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s just less of a cultural narrative involving overwrought hand-wringing about men’s choices in these matters.

Which brings us to the last point -- that 76 percent of young women are concerned about achieving a balance between personal and professional goals. Given the “can’t have it all” narrative that seems to characterize the discussion of women and success, maybe we should be surprised it’s only 76 percent. But as I told the young women in my audience, there is time for whatever matters to you. If there’s time to hit a Yankees game with friends on weekends now, there will be time to take a 7-year-old fishing later. If there’s time to go to a 6:30 yoga class now, there will be time to cuddle and read with an early rising 2-year-old. If you make it a priority to go to a Monday night dance class now, you can later make it a priority to sing in a community chorus with your teenager. In 168 hours, there is lots of space and possibility -- if you choose to make the most of it.

*I think this survey confuses a few issues. While it is about women and ambition, it is quite possible to be ambitious and not aspire to lead a large organization. I consider myself quite ambitious, but the nature of my work means most of my projects will involve a small team at most (side note: I turn out to be an INTJ personality type -- new learning!). You can change the world (I hope!) without running an empire.

Photo courtesy flickr user Mobile Edge Laptop Cases

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32 Responses to Millennial women and ambition


  1. TG says:

    I’ve worked for 3 Fortune 500 companies, two of which are Fortune 100.

    There is a huge difference in the life demands between being in the top 15% of earners (I was there by 25) and leading an organization. You need to think in standard deviation or order of magnitude terms, not in percentiles, to really consider the requirements of leading an organization.

    (I’m an INTJ too and we’re headed to Washington national parks for our family vacation this week. If you ever go back, you should consider the ferry to Victoria and Lake Chelan.)

  2. TG says:

    Because equating “income in top 15%” with “business leader” was bothering me, I went to the US census report to determine what the 85th percentile income for women was in the last year reported. (2011) It’s $52,000. Female MBA’s should be well above this even at their starting compensation.

    http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/cpstables/032012/perinc/pinc11_000.htm

    • Laura says:

      Great. That was an easily available stat. I’m going down the list of the Forbes Most Powerful Women, and of the top business leaders on the list, almost all are married or long-term partnered: http://www.forbes.com/power-women/list/

    • Laura says:

      @TG – also, I’m not sure what your point is: that women who want to be business leaders should resign themselves to being unmarried and childless? That there’s no way women who are successful or want to be can have a happy family life too?

      • TG says:

        My point is that women who seek professional success in the top 1% (not top 15%) usually wind up sacrificing family life to a greater extent than men in the top 1% do.

        Angela Merkel, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor are all childless. Margaret Thatcher’s husband was a businessman who could afford to fund her education as a barrister and a full-time nanny for their twins.

        What is the relative ratio of lifelong singleness for successful (defined as income in top 5%) men vs. women? What is the relative probability of childlessness? What is the relative probability of divorce? I think the world has improved since Sylvia Anne Hewlett did her study but I think your natural attributes (intellligence, Caucasian race, attractiveness, stable childhood) blind you to the challenges of family and work success at the highest levels.

        I wouldn’t say “There’s NO WAY women who are extremely successful can have a happy family life too” but “It is much harder for a woman to find a lifelong, supportive spouse willing to support her ambitions than it is for a man. And if you insist on holding out for that, you may wind up single or divorced.”

        • Laura says:

          @TG – If you hold out for a husband who considers you his equal, you may also find a great spouse. Sandberg seems happy with hers. You can point to three childless powerful women, or you can look at women on the list (and there are many) who do have husbands and children. But you have your own worldview — maybe you should turn all these musings into your own blog.

          • TG says:

            There’s not much of a market for material that says “95th percentile is good enough, in both family and career.” I’m not sure how much of what you write is because you truly believe it (in which case offering you alternate data is a service) and how much of it is because you have to profess a certain worldview in order to sell books (in which case I should leave you in peace to convey misinformation)

          • WG says:

            Leaving aside that I find these sorts of lists generally useless and imprecise, looking at the marital status of the list is sort of interesting. Would certain people be on the list without their marriages (e.g., Melinda Gates, Michelle Obama, Laurene Powell-Job, Sonia Gandhi)? If some women stayed married would they have made it (e.g., JK Rowlings)? If some women chose a life where they lived in the same country as their husbands and children, would they have made it to the list (e.g., Aung Sun Suu Kyi)?

          • Laura says:

            @WG – Marital status is interesting. I split the list into broad categories. There are political leaders like Merkel, there are entertainment types (Jolie, etc.), there are business types (Sandberg, Ursula Burns, Nooyi, etc.), and others that are harder to classify in influence. Some people (Obama, Clinton, Powell-Jobs, Gates) are entirely on the list because of who their husbands are. In all their cases, I’m not sure that’s the way it had to go, but that’s how these women wound up making their names. In general, the business ones are a little different. Most of them more rose through the ranks independently of their husbands — which is different from 40 years ago (I just wrote a Fortune story on this) when the business women on a similar list were mostly married to the guys who they started companies with, or something along those lines.

          • WG says:

            Ack! I can’t accept a narrative that the former secretary of state is “entirely on the list because of who [her] husband[] is.” I will acknowledge, however, that her husband helped propel her political career.

          • Laura says:

            @WG – certainly she’s done plenty on her own to make the list. My point was more that the reason you know the Clintons is because of Bill. She made the most of the opportunity that presented her, and certainly has done more to build on that capital than many other people given those opportunities. I am interested to see what Michelle Obama will do with herself after her husband is out of office.

          • I’m fairly sure you would know the name Rodham if she hadn’t been married to Clinton. The counterfactual is pretty clear that she’s got an enormous sense of civic responsibility, had political family connections prior to Clinton, and has ambition and the means to use it. She probably would have been a senator that much sooner.

      • TG says:

        A second point relates to the number of men vs. women who make it to the top 1% of success at all. There are far more men in the top 1% of successful people than women, in part for the reasons I describe.

  3. Natalie says:

    I agree with your note about the survey question. I think ambition means different things to different people. I have no desire to lead a Fortune 500, but I wouldn’t say that I lack ambition. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results from your logs from women earning >$100k. Love the James Baldwin quote that says something along the lines of people who say it can’t be done are often interrupted by others doing it. I’m an INFJ type.

    • Laura says:

      @Natalie – it is such a broad word. The online dictionary says “A strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work; Desire and determination to achieve success.” Lots of ways to do that without leading a large organization. Fewer ways to do it totally on your own, of course — but leading a small team is a different matter.

  4. sara says:

    Even if the worldview Laura defends is more easily inhabited or adopted by relatively privileged women, her elaborating it is a service to educated women (and men) generally. The most professionally ambitious women desirous of “having it all” see that it can work and how. Many more women in many different situations are presented with a possible narrative to think about and argue with.

    • Laura says:

      @sara – thank you for your comment. I am trying to present a different world view than we frequently see. People are free to choose whatever works for their own lives.

    • WG says:

      Of course it can work as a general matter. Even looking at the results of the Zeno survey, 80% “[b]elieve they can juggle work and family life over the long haul.” The devil is in the details. Of course, I have to say that though — I am an “S” to your “N.”

      • Laura says:

        @WG – an interesting thing about the personality tests…we are more or less pronounced on different dimensions. I’m not a strong introvert, for sure. More the moderate sort. I like the big picture, but I like details, too. Indeed, it is the details in many of the time logs I’m studying that I find so fascinating. I spent a year as a fact checker and I liked getting things very, very specifically right.

        • Marcy says:

          I’m an N who loves details, too. I think. It’s very useful as a writer to be comfortable with both the big picture and the details, isn’t it? I found it helpful while studying linguistics, as well. Being an N (I think… hey, I’m a P) helps with being at home with connotations and the general feel of words and language, while much of linguistics is all about the little details, the the little shifts in sound when certain sounds combine, or… well, linguistics is all about *patterns,* too, whether of sounds or word order or suffixes. Detailed patterns.

      • WG says:

        I agree that MBTI (or any personality test) is imperfect. The set up was too good to pass up!

  5. Pamela says:

    I’m still trying to figure out what ambition means to me, other than knowing for sure that I don’t want to be a CEO. My field is HR – would I want to run my own HR department at some point? I don’t really know. I think for right now, my ambition is to do the best job I can where I am (it helps a *lot* that a have a great boss who is also a great mentor), and then see where the future opportunities are. I do consider myself ambitious because I do want to have an influence on my organization through my job, and I want to remain open to future leadership opportunities. However, I’d probably answer “no” if someone asked if I wanted to lead an entire organization, not because of family stuff, but just because I don’t want to do that. (I should add that I’m not sure I’m the target demographic for the question – I was born in 1980, so I’m right on the edge of being a millennial, but I find that descriptions of millennials don’t seem to fit me very well).

  6. Marcy says:

    I was going to make another comment on this, but it ended up being almost 700 words long. Oops. So… the “comment” is over here, on my blog: http://quettandil.blogspot.com/2013/07/some-musings-on-different-takes-on.html

  7. Cara Marcano says:

    this narrative you talk about is pretty much exclusive to upper middle class white women — and the little girls they put into the society. Which means a few things for example that the Ivy league and other universities should invest more slots against minority girls and lower income and middle middle class kids and lower middle class kids. upper middle class white men and women should look harder at the message they are at times sending their girls. 95% of women in the middle middle and lower middle class are not having this conversation — they are breadwinners and working in dual income marriages and this is statistically and socially and culturally proven. here is a good link to a study that shows how important it is to make sure black, latino and blue collar white women are getting first shot at high-class education and training … especially if upper middle class white women aren’t going to take advantage of their opportunities – which many of them are not, in part b/c a woman who doesn’t have to leave her child in a daycare babyroom out of economic necessity and who is rewarded for looking beautiful and attending to her husband’s needs in fact will not work for $ if she doesn’t ..if your parents say earn less than 90K together or you are the child of a single mother maybe these women need to receive priority … http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-04-26/female-mbas-from-elite-schools-more-likely-to-opt-out

    • That is a great point. There’s a lot of other research showing that lower SES kids get a lot more bang for their buck from elite schools than already elite kids do. Keeping educated people in the workforce just adds to that (though maybe is not such a good message for social conservatives who would prefer all women stay at home and pregnant).

      • Laura says:

        @nicoleandmaggie – oh, it’s such a fraught conversation. One reason I think I get frustrated at the narrative of people opting out is that for so long women weren’t allowed to enter many professional schools partly for just that reason…the assumption that they won’t use their degrees. While on one hand, we all have to live our own lives and make our own decisions, it wasn’t that long ago.

        • WG says:

          I’ve always thought the noise over married women “dropping out” was much louder than called for by the actual numbers. I recall the NY Times kicking up a storm several years ago about well-educated women lawyers dropping out of the profession. In my experience, it was completely overwrought.

    • WG says:

      The headline does not match the text of the article. The text is about full time versus non-full time work. That’s not necessarily “opting-out” in my book. It strikes me that an MBA from an elite school could land many interesting work options, that are still well compensated but not full time. Shouldn’t we applaud something like that?

      • ARC says:

        Wasn’t there a similar article in the NYT last year sometime, about a female doctor lamenting her younger colleagues “wasting a spot” in med school and then “only” working part-time, etc?

        I’ve got a horse in this race, of course, but I totally applaud anyone who can make their work arrangement work for them, whatever form it takes.

        • Laura says:

          @ARC – I think there was such an article. Of course, there are lots of male (and female) doctors who are not practicing for various reasons. They take jobs in industry, government, administration. If people get mad about female doctors practicing part-time, we should also a least get miffed about that, but we don’t.

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