Episode 133: The Ambition Decisions

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…

“There’s this very classical way of channeling ambition or the way we think about channeling ambition, which is that it should all go into your career.”

But plenty of women steer their ambition into other areas – at least for a while. And if they can do that, why can’t men?

“True gender equality is acknowledging that men get to have dreams too, and that men don’t have to pursue a CEO-ship or a traditional career track just because they’ve been expected to their whole lives.”

Women, ambition and choices about career and relationships. Coming up on The Broad Experience.

When I first started out in the workforce I never thought of myself as being ambitious in the traditional sense. I had no desire to get to the corner office. I was what I called ambitious to be happy – I’d been a pretty miserable teenager. And for me that meant a fulfilling job and a good relationship and plenty of interests outside of work. Over the years I’ve watched with some envy and self-doubt as friends of mine have climbed the corporate ladder and my career has careened all over the place.

Both my guests were thinking along these same lines a few years ago as they approached their mid-forties. We’re exactly the same age.

“I’m Hana Schank, I work for a think tank and I’m a writer.”

“I’m Elizabeth Wallace, I’m also a writer for magazines and branded content and advertising.”

They’re are also co-authors of the book The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know about Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life.

Hana and Liz met in college and they’ve always kept in touch. Liz saw the print media industry shrink like crazy while she was in it. She found she was spending more time with her kids than she ever had before, and freelancing. Hana was running her own business and also working around her kids’ schedules. But were things perfect at home? No. And were these careers good enough? As Hana put it, she knew a lot of women with the word ‘global’ in their title. She and Liz didn’t have that.

“We found we were both at the same point in our lives of being dissatisfied with where we were with our careers, with our marriages, with our parenting – and trying to do all this stuff at the same time and feeling like we were not doing a good job or being where we wanted to be at any given moment. And wondering if there was this mythical woman out there who had this all figured out and was just doing a superb job at all of it.” 

The two of them had met at Northwestern, back in 1989. They’d been in a sorority together. They remembered their friends in that sorority as ambitious to a woman – everyone had big plans for her future. They decided to track down those women, over 40 of them, including those they’d lost touch with, and interview them – about what their lives were like now, and how they compared to their early dreams. Basically, how were they making it work? Because surely they WERE making it work?

Hana: “The start of this was to talk to the women we had known in college and to find somebody who just proved to ourselves the point that it’s actually us, we’re the ones who can’t handle it, somebody out there has it all figured out.”

AM-T: “It’s all perfect. Somebody out there has the perfect life…I was gonna say quite early on in the ambition chapter you say, we started this project trying to find women who’d figured it all out, instead we found a lot of our friends had lives more or less like ours and were figuring it out in real time every day. And you found this out after interviewing four stay at home mothers in a row. And you were quite surprised, right?”

Liz: “We were, because before that I think we’d interviewed several what we’d later call ‘high achievers’, who were C suite executives or marketing execs who were the primary breadwinners in the family who had never taken a break from their career, and been really, really gung ho about it, very type A. So when we started these interviews we thought oh, we’ll see a lot of that…and then when we did interview several stay at home moms in a row, they seemed happy and content and confident in the decision they had made. And at that time I’d given up my childcare, I had not given up my work but I had compromised to only do my work at the time my children were in school…so I empathized in some ways with the stay at home moms, but also I had this tugging feeling inside of me of wow, you had so much potential, why did you give that up?”

Liz says she was quite judgy at first. But that was before they dug into these women’s lives and found out more about why they made the choices they had. Liz and Hana’s friends were from a mix of backgrounds – some were the first members of their family to go to college, others grew up in privilege, many were in between. Some, like Liz, were daughters of first-generation immigrants. Most were white and most were in heterosexual relationships.

In the book Liz and Hana divide the women they talked to into three groups: the high achievers, the flex-lifers, and the opt-outers. More on all these in a bit.

AM-T: “Yeah, what was  what was so interesting was reading about all the ways in which ambition goes down a slightly different path…whether it’s women who gave up their careers for their kids or what you call ‘flex-lifers,’ so they are working but they perhaps work fewer hours or they work a normal 40-hour week in order to have a life, since most of them have families.”

Hana: “What was striking to us about the stay at home mothers was they didn’t seem like people who were not ambitious. They continued to be ambitious…in addition to taking care of their children, they all did things like they were all the president of the PTA or the neighborhood association, they were still out there and running things and clearly driven and wanting to be in charge of stuff and wanting to channel their ambition in ways that didn’t happen to be work. And that’s also true of the flex-lifers…”

Again, this group is made up of what I imagine to be the majority of women – people who want a career but a career that doesn’t eat their life. But Hana and Liz both live in New York and we are surrounded by high achievers in these parts. So at first they weren’t sure what to make of this group. They wondered, were these women just phoning it in at work? Then finally they realized…

Hana: “What this actually is, is a conscious decision of ‘I’m good where I am but I want to do other things, like I want to have a hobby or I want to meet my kid at 3p.m every day or I want to do trail running.’ Whatever it is. And that they had different ways they wanted to channel their ambition. And one of the things we talk about in the book is there’s this very classical way of channeling ambition or the way we think about channeling ambition, which is that it should all go into your career and that if you are an ambitious person you have this very high-flying career and this is what ambition looks like.”

AM-T: “It's outward.”

“Right, it’s outward and it’s career directed, it’s ‘you are killing it at work and you are recognized for killing it at work.”

And the high achievers – they were able to power ahead because they didn’t mind not being the most ‘present’ parent in the world. Most of them had kids and most of those had a stay-at-home spouse. They felt they could stay late or go in early because they knew their spouse or their nanny had it covered. They ceded control at home to achieve at work. And they didn’t feel bad about it.

The majority of the women featured in the book are married with children, because by the time you hit your forties…most women ARE. But not all of us.

AM-T: “You’re mostly talking about people who are in a partnership, but I really wonder as someone who was single for a long time, if some of the women you spoke to were single – maybe they were divorced or maybe they’d always been single. But maybe single without kids, and what their lives were like? I mean were they all hard charging? Because I’m always saying gosh, just because you don’t have kids it doesn’t mean you want to work 20 hours a day, you want a life just as much as anyone else.”

“Yeah, no, so there were definitely women who were not married, two women actually got married while we were in the process of doing this, so in their 40s, two women got divorced while we were in process of interviewing, and the women who were single were not all people who constantly worked. Some of them were very successful but others had desires beyond work just as people in a partnership would. So there was one woman who had a management consulting career and at some point said this is not for me, I want to live in Colorado, and she moved to a small town in Colorado and started a business so she could hike in the mountains and ski and have that kind of life…”

For me one story in particular stood out.

AM-T: “I remember one story that I read toward the end of the book, a sorority member who had married later, she’d married a guy who had a son, as I have, and it was really interesting because it’s very similar to my feelings. She said something to you like, well now I’ve got this partner and I want to do things with him, I want to spend time with him because she hadn’t had that for quite a while before. And that’s exactly how I feel. I mean I have so much less time to work now, even though I’m not a biological mother, my stepson is with us half the week and so much more of my time is going to other humans than it used to. And productivity-wise it’s not great, but it’s great in every other way. And I want to spend time with these people I didn’t have in my life before.”

“Yeah, we loved her story for that reason. because I think especially if you are somebody who from the early days of childhood was told you’re gonna go out and do big stuff and this is what your life is gonna look like, and you’re surrounded by others who are climbing the corporate ladder who are having a lot of career success, this is internal guilt and internal criticism around well, isn’t that what my life should look like? I think that was part of the starting point of this book – looking at that and saying well these other people are top executives, and how come that didn’t happen to me? And that some of that is a choice and a perfectly fine and legitimate choice to make. And we loved that woman’s story in particular because she was someone who was very ambitious, had started her own company, was doing really well and was wresting with, now I have the opportunity to have this piece of my life that I didn’t have before, and am I quitting if I give up the career piece which I’ve worked so hard for? But at the same time struggling with, is it OK to be the kind of person who just wants to have a personal life?” 

AM-T: “You focus a lot in the book on people being so busy, people’s lives are bursting at the seams, I bet a lot of these women don’t get 7 hours sleep a night, you know, they are burning the candle at both ends when it comes to whatever they’re doing for their children, their jobs, most of them are doing more in the home than their male partners. It really jumped out at me from these pages – control, control, control. Women really love to control things. Can you talk a little bit about that, because this is part of the reason why we’re so exhausted.”

Liz: “Well we…yes, it is. One of the things we talk about specifically with relation to parenting and control, is that a lot of these women – well, two things: they said they wanted to control everything and that when it came to parenting they felt like they had to be the one to do everything – to make the pediatrician appointments, and you know as you read the book, Ashley, that one hundred percent of our friends who had children make the pediatrician appointments, even if they don’t take them to the appointments, they wanted to be the one to put it on the calendar, that for them, part of the control issue was focused around the things they did as a mother that made them feel essentially like a mother.

So we talk about identifying the things that are inherently important to you as a mother and also identifying the things that aren’t as important to you, that you can delegate to someone else or just not do. Like do you really need to do laundry three times a week, maybe not.…or can you drop the ball and not make lunch one or two days a week? Do you need to be making a homemade bento box lunch every day for your kids? Give yourself a break two days a week. The relinquishing of the control of those things, I mean it seems really minor but for me personally I mean I live this every day of my life and we talk about things – things I can really let go of. There’ll be times like, ‘oh, I’m so stressed, I’m so tired,’ and Hana’s like, why don’t you order in tonight, Liz? And I’m like, we don’t order in, we don’t do that, we’re not that family! And I feel bad and beat myself if I’m not making a homemade meal even if it’s just some steamed vegetables and sautéed chicken.”

She does do takeout a bit more often these days. And I have to say here that it’s not just women who feel this way about their parenting. My husband makes gourmet breakfasts and school lunches for his son too - crepes with Nutella, anyone? Pasta with homemade pesto?

Liz and Hana also heard from a lot of women who didn’t want their male partners doing various stuff at home or with the kids…because they didn’t do it right…

“Our big takeaway there was for the sake of making yourself sane, for the sake of moving toward gender equality in marriages and smashing the patriarchy and giving yourself more time to really kill it at work or get more sleep, or exercise, or self-care, the things you also want to do well in your life – let your husband empty the dishwasher and don’t complain about how he does it…the dishes are gonna get clean or not, will it kill you to eat on a not perfectly clean dish? Get comfortable with things not being done the exact way you want them to. It’s gonna give you more time and create more harmony in a marriage. I mean we’ve talked about this endlessly. Do you want to add to that?

Hana: “I think the other part is figuring out the things you absolutely have to be in control of. So we have one story in the book which is one of my favorites about a woman who asked her husband to take their daughter to a specialist, and she said when he came back the report she got was so unsatisfactory that she had to go make a second appointment and get a second opinion to do it herself.”

AM-T: “Men can be quite concise in their descriptions.”

Hana: “Yes, well, obviously she felt this has to be done this very specific way. So either she had to change her feeling on that or she had to say, you know this is just a thing that it’s not possible for me to delegate. And I’m gonna do it.”

AM-T: “ I’m just curious, Liz…you are married to a woman, and you are largely writing about people in heterosexual relationships, did you marvel at this? Is your life perfectly balanced?”

Liz: “None of our lives are perfectly balanced and mine certainly is not. But I did marvel at it a lot and Hana and I have talked about this a lot and I want to write something about how emotional labor is different in my same sex relationship. I’m not technically married but I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, and that some of the issues around emotional labor and the breakdown of domestic duties among a lot of the friends we interviewed did resonate with me, and feeling the need to control everything in the household and with the kids 100% is an affliction I grapple with. However, the breakdown of parenting duties, domestic duties and responsibilities is really arbitrary in my house and it’s based on who has more time, who has more interest and who might be better at something…”

And talking about who does what or who should do what – as Liz just said, in her house that stuff doesn’t fall along traditional gender lines because they’re two women. But she and Hana found that most of their friends who were married to men, these women in their forties, they had pretty traditional views, and not just about the home front.

 Hana: “In a lot of our friends’ relationships the default was, ‘my husband’s career takes priority,’ even if that didn’t actually make sense for the two careers people had. So we had a couple of cases where…and one woman in particular, she was a rabbi, a mid-level rabbi, and she kept waiting for her husband’s career to take off, and that they’d talked about how he was gonna be the one, and she was gonna be more of the supporting role, bolstering his career. And at some point they realized actually he didn’t want his career to take off, and she was more interested in having a more demanding career. So once they had that conversation they could adjust, and that’s what happened. She ended up getting up a senior rabbi position and the family moved for her work, and he is more responsible on the home front. But the degree to which even these women who I think are pretty feminist women just defaulted to well, he’s a man, so therefore it’s his career that we’re focused on.”

AM-T: “I want to jump ahead to money because I love the fact that you focus on this piece of advice that women take to heart more than men, which is do what you love, follow your passion. Can you talk about that?”

Hana: “We noticed that in our friend group there were women who felt very strongly that they needed to support themselves and others who did not feel that way. The women who felt they needed to support themselves ended up supporting themselves. And they didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about what’s my passion and what do I love, they thought how do I make money doing something that is intellectually interesting to me and that I don’t hate going to every day.”

She says the whole ‘do what you love’ gathered steam right around the time we all graduated from college in the early 90s, and it’s only gained strength since then. The co-working space We Work – they use it as their mantra.

“Really, does everybody at WeWork go in and love absolutely every minute of what they’re doing? It’s such a burden to put on people. And we, in the course of looking at our data, felt like this disproportionately affects women. Because on top of being told ‘do what you love’ women are not told ‘do something that pays the bills,’ they don’t get the message that they need to be the breadwinner.”

Now this certainly has been the case traditionally. Just as it’s been the case that families generally didn’t talk to their girls about money – because, why bother? You were just going to get married and be supported by some nice man. Any job you had would be secondary to his. But I wonder how true this still is. I’d love to hear from young listeners about how you were raised to think about a career.

Hana says the thing is…

“It’s fine to have a job that is low paying that you love, when you don’t have kids, but then a lot of women talked about as soon as they had their first child they were making less than the nanny and it didn’t make sense for them to keep working. Which we, somewhat snarkily perhaps, were like, what did you expect? You know how much you’re making, you know you’re gonna have a baby, you know you’ve chosen a career that isn’t lucrative. If you haven’t got the message of, this income isn’t just fun money, this income is to support yourself, it’s easy to just step away from it and say, ‘well, I want to be home with the baby anyway.’ And then women on top of that have this added pressure of ‘is your job valuable enough to be away from your child?’ which is really the thing you should be craving to be with.” 

But when it comes to that, ‘well, there’s no point me working when all my salary would just go to pay for childcare…’

First, Liz says…

Liz: “Why do you think of childcare as a line item only on the woman’s salary? Childcare is a line item on a family’s salary. Childcare should come from both partners’ salaries if both partners are working because it’s something that benefits both partners.”

And second, you’ve heard this before, but having childcare even if it does eat your salary – having that childcare can allow you to progress in your career and earn far more later on. Look at it as an investment. But for a number of reasons, women tend not to think that way…

Liz: “That combination of feeling like your career isn’t worth it because it’s not earning enough, it’s not worth it because you really should be home with your children, or because you don’t earn as much as your partner and you feel their career is inherently for whatever reason is more important as yours. I have felt it in my own career and I’ve seen it with so many friends. It can be such a career killer for women.”

Something to think about.

Finally, Liz says, before you commit to a relationship consider what your expectations are…for each of you. And question them.

Liz: “True gender equality is acknowledging that men get to have dreams too, and that men don’t have to pursue a CEO-ship or a traditional career track just because they’ve been expected to their whole lives…if they want to be a flex -lifer or an opt-outer and partner with someone who has a different configuration, if they want to stay home and raise children they should be able to do that, or if they want to pursue a creative career and have a partner who has a more stable, high earning job so they can have this ambition balance in their lives, they should be able to do that.

It really is my hope that this younger generation, men and women, will talk together about what they want their lives to look like. But it’s really important for both men and women to specifically articulate this – it’s not gonna happen by accident, you have to talk about these things in relationships and not expect it to just flush out a certain way just because you’re both devoted to gender equality. I mean maybe for some it will, but in our experience, the women we talked to, the women who specifically had these conversations and continued to have them over course of their relationships and careers were the ones who seemed better be able to actualize what they wanted in marriages and in their careers and in their parenting.”

Elizabeth Wallace. Thanks to her and Hana Schank for being my guests on this show.

Before they wrote The Ambition Decisions Hana and Liz wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic on the same topic – I will link you to those pieces at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s the show for this time. As always I am keen to hear from you. You can email me at ashley at TheBroadExperience.com, tweet me or post on the Facebook page.

 And if you’d like to become a supporter of this one-woman show, head over to the support tab at TheBroadExperience.com.

 I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.