Friday, May 16, 2008

AmBITCHion, Revisited

As promised, my quick report on this week's "Women and Ambition" panel co-sponsored by the National Council for Research on Women and PricewaterhouseCoopers:

The thing I love about corporate panels is that they start and finish on time. They are impeccably moderated. They serve food. This one delivered on all fronts, and went a step beyond. Every audience member was given a remote control devise by which to cast votes, enabling the moderator to poll us in real time and post the results on a big screen up front. It was cooler than Oprah, I swear.

There were some interesting results from the audience poll: 75% of the women in the crowd described themselves as "ambitious." 94% of the men in attendance said the word "ambitious", when used to describe someone, carried a positive connotation, but only 57% of the women agreed.

Women's ambition is certainly a hot-button issue these days. Everyone agrees that we should be much further along in terms of our representation at the top tiers of corporate and political leadership than we are. How are ambitions born? What impedes then? What can companies do to help women nurture and realize theirs? Panelists--psychiatrist and author Anna Fels, the White House Project's Marie Wilson, entrepreneurship scholar Myra Hart, law partner Marsha Simms, and economist Lise Vesterlund--sounded off on these issues, and more.

Some memorable quips:

Moderator Jennifer Allyn: "We've been talking about critical mass since the 1970s. There has to be more than 16% [the percent of women in Congress] before women can stop being seen as the 'only' and constitute more of a critical mass."

Marie Wilson: "Anytime you have only one woman in a top position, all you see is their gender--hair, hemlines, and husbands." "You cannot be what you cannot see. So we have to make the women who are in leadership more visible."

Myra Hart: "Research shows that women straight out of Harvard Business School land the same kinds of jobs at the same compensation of men. But 5 years later, women's career paths indicate a change. Much of it may be self-selection, but some of it is not."

Lisa Vesterlund: "Research shows it's not that women are under-confident about their ability to compete and win. It's than men are actually over-confident about theirs."

And my personal favorite:

Marie Wilson: "In the last 6 months of media coverage, Hillary Clinton's ambition has been described as 'unquenchable.' John McCain's ambition hasn't been mentioned at all."

For more on women's leadership, consider joining me at the Council's annual conference this year, titled "Hitting the Ground Running: Research, Activism, and Leadership for a New Era," on June 5-7 at NYU. To register, contact Jessyca Dudley at, 212/785-7335, x205 or visit


vivienne said...

Does the writer's life immunize you against the whole ambition and competition dilemma or is it something you also have to deal with?

Marjorie said...

Deborah, thanks for yet another thoughtful post. I'm been thinking along the same lines since reading Leslie Bennetts' The Feminine Mistake a few weeks ago. She did make a point that female MBA grads who go on to become up-and-coming junior execs in their fields often opt out of the workforce entirely, seduced by the very powerful (and heavily socially sanctioned) call of stay-at-home motherhood. Bennetts points out that even a year-long "break" from working world can delay one's progress to the corner office much longer than the duration of the "sabbatical" itself. I don't know or remember if her research bore out her conclusions (I remember a lot of anecdotal evidence), and certainly her book focused largely on upper-middle-class, white, privileged professional women. Still, even in my own life I can see that insidious dynamic at work.

Vivienne, I consider myself an uber-ambitious writer. I don't necessarily think of ambition as being exclusive to the business/corporate spheres. Heck, I've nothing less than bestselling stardom in my sights! ;-) I think that anytime one is passionate about one's work, a little bit of ambition is required in order to pursue it.