We’re about to dive into chapter 1 in a series of online discussions through Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead—an especially relevant topic for Christian women in the workplace.
If you don’t yet have a copy, forget the public library. A friend emailed me yesterday to say, “I reserved Lean In at the library, but I’m 159th in line. And they have lots of copies!!”
Did I say “bestseller”?
So here goes … and please feel free to join in!
The subject of ambition sits squarely on the table in the opening chapter of Lean In, where Sandberg notes a disappointing trend in the low numbers of women compared to men who are reaching the highest leadership levels in the workplace. The culprit, as she sees it, is not the lack of opportunity or women’s ability to lead, but is rather a “leadership ambition gap” between women and men.
“Ambition” is defined as a strong desire to achieve a particular goal—anything from good grades to losing weight to a leadership post. Sandberg doesn’t exactly offer a formal definition of ambition, but she observes that despite the fact that women are “earning about 57 percent of the undergraduate and 60 percent of the master’s degrees in the United States” leadership positions in business remain “overwhelmingly stocked with men.” (p.15).
And why is this? According to Sandberg, it is a lack of ambition in women.
She observes several reasons why women hold back instead of climbing the corporate ladder in significant numbers. There is the perception that ambition is not a virtue for women and is therefore inappropriate. Social pressures make marriage a more important goal for young women. The constant need to juggle personal and professional priorities diminishes the desire for advancement and more responsibility on the job. And girls are typically conditioned differently than boys.
In all of these, she sees fear as the root cause—“fear of not being liked … of making the wrong choice… of drawing negative attention … of overreaching … of being judged … of failure… of being a bad mother/wife/daughter.” (p.24)
At the 2011 Barnard College commencement, Sandberg sounded her mantra by calling female graduates to “lean way in to your career. . . . find something you love doing and you will do it with gusto. Find the right career for you and go all the way to the top.” (p.25)
In her review, Rebecca Lyons pushed back on Sandberg.
“Ambition has a tendency to bend a good thing—bravery—into a selfish thing. And the world doesn’t need more selfish women. It needs more women who are empowered to use their talents to renew their workplaces, as well as their families, neighborhoods and communities. If we lean in to a corporate culture that insists we climb our way to the top, we will miss a greater call to bravery: to transforming our surroundings, instead of conforming to them.”
I’m all for more bravery. But I’m not willing to set aside ambition so easily. Displacing it with “bravery” or some other more palatable attribute plays right into the mentality that ambition is inappropriate for women—thinking that is unfortunately even more entrenched in Christian circles.
I think we need to tackle this issue head on.
Isn’t the problem that we are caught on the horns of a double standard—one definition of ambition for men and another for women? Men are criticized for “lacking ambition”; women are disparaged for having it.
Ambition for men means working for professional success as a benefit to them personally, to their organization, and to their family. Ambition for women is linked with a me-first selfishness, cut-throat aggression, a power-grab, a determined get-out-of-my way fight to the top no matter what it takes or who it takes out in the process—all at the expense of marriage, family, and femininity or, in Christian circles, godly womanhood.
But like many other attributes, ambition can be and is used for good or for ill by both men and women.
I grew up believing work for a woman was temporary—confined to single years and on the front end of marriage (before kids and/or whenever your husband finished his academic training). After that, home and family became a woman’s career. So I didn’t flinch when the role of breadwinner fell on me while Frank pursued his studies. I landed a great job as a hospital administrator’s secretary expecting to work there for three years max. I gave no thought to moving up until my game plan failed.
Four years in, I was bored with no end in sight. I hadn’t counted on Frank earning two doctorates. But then I was married to an ambitious man.
A conversation between us marked a turning point for me. I came into marriage with a recipe for how things were supposed to work. He came in with the expectation that we’d be a team—tackling life together, seeing where God was leading, and both of us doing whatever it took to move forward together—what I now call a Blessed Alliance.
In that conversation, I realized I was (and always had been) working for the wrong reason: because I “had to,” not because I was called to work. Big difference. I went back to work with a deeper sense of purpose and … as it turned out a newfound sense of ambition.
Subsequently, Frank bought me a book entitled Secretary to Manager that explained strategies for moving up. I was inspired and began looking for ways to do more with my job. The change in me eventually led to my appointment as Manager of Automated Office Systems for the hospital and ultimately to my own software development business.
I didn’t use the word “ambitious” in Half the Church, but what I wrote about being God’s image bearer applies.
“God … didn’t create a flat earth. God’s world has mountains that awaken in us the need to climb, to test our limits and find out firsthand what it’s like to stand atop a snowy peak. He created a world that is packed with endless treasure, raw material, and unexplored frontiers designed to stir up in us the artist, the scientist, the explorer-adventurer, the athlete, the mathematician, the botanist, the entrepreneur, and much more…. The world seemingly was waiting for God’s image bearers to put their creative powers to work—to create culture and civilization, the arts, sciences, and technology…. God has put within reach everything we need … to thrive and grow and develop the potential for which he created us.” (p.73-74)
And what about Jesus parable of the stewards and the talents (Matthew 25:12-30)? Does that apply to women?
So What’s Your Take?
Are you ambitious? Why or why not? Is ambition an asset or a liability for Christian women in the workplace? Does your church affirm that women have a “calling” in the same way men do or does it confine a women’s calling to home and family? Can a wife have a different “calling” than her husband’s “calling”?
What would you do if you weren’t afraid?
Lean in with your comments!
Next Wednesday, May 8: Chapter 2—Sit at the Table
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